Explanation and categorization: How "why?" informs "what?"

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Recent theoretical and empirical work suggests that explanation and categorization are intimately related. This paper explores the hypothesis that explanations can help structure conceptual representations, and thereby influence the relative importance of features in categorization decisions. In particular, features may be differentially important depending on the role they play in explaining other features or aspects of category membership. Two experiments manipulate whether a feature is explained mechanistically, by appeal to proximate causes, or functionally, by appeal to a function or goal. Explanation type has a significant impact on the relative importance of features in subsequent categorization judgments, with functional explanations reversing previously documented effects of 'causal status'. The findings suggest that a feature's explanatory importance can impact categorization, and that explanatory relationships, in addition to causal relationships, are critical to understanding conceptual representation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)248-253
Number of pages6
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2009
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Categorization
  • Causal status
  • Causation
  • Explanation
  • Feature centrality
  • Functional explanation
  • Functions
  • Teleological explanation


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