How “is” shapes “ought” for folk-biological concepts

Emily Foster-Hanson, Tania Lombrozo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Knowing which features are frequent among a biological kind (e.g., that most zebras have stripes) shapes people's representations of what category members are like (e.g., that typical zebras have stripes) and normative judgments about what they ought to be like (e.g., that zebras should have stripes). In the current work, we ask if people's inclination to explain why features are frequent is a key mechanism through which what “is” shapes beliefs about what “ought” to be. Across four studies (N = 591), we find that frequent features are often explained by appeal to feature function (e.g., that stripes are for camouflage), that functional explanations in turn shape judgments of typicality, and that functional explanations and typicality both predict normative judgments that category members ought to have functional features. We also identify the causal assumptions that license inferences from feature frequency and function, as well as the nature of the normative inferences that are drawn: by specifying an instrumental goal (e.g., camouflage), functional explanations establish a basis for normative evaluation. These findings shed light on how and why our representations of how the natural world is shape our judgments of how it ought to be.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101507
JournalCognitive Psychology
StatePublished - Dec 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


  • Causal reasoning
  • Concepts
  • Folk biology
  • Functional explanation
  • Normativity
  • Teleology


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