Simplicity and probability in causal explanation

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What makes some explanations better than others? This paper explores the roles of simplicity and probability in evaluating competing causal explanations. Four experiments investigate the hypothesis that simpler explanations are judged both better and more likely to be true. In all experiments, simplicity is quantified as the number of causes invoked in an explanation, with fewer causes corresponding to a simpler explanation. Experiment 1 confirms that all else being equal, both simpler and more probable explanations are preferred. Experiments 2 and 3 examine how explanations are evaluated when simplicity and probability compete. The data suggest that simpler explanations are assigned a higher prior probability, with the consequence that disproportionate probabilistic evidence is required before a complex explanation will be favored over a simpler alternative. Moreover, committing to a simple but unlikely explanation can lead to systematic overestimation of the prevalence of the cause invoked in the simple explanation. Finally, Experiment 4 finds that the preference for simpler explanations can be overcome when probability information unambiguously supports a complex explanation over a simpler alternative. Collectively, these findings suggest that simplicity is used as a basis for evaluating explanations and for assigning prior probabilities when unambiguous probability information is absent. More broadly, evaluating explanations may operate as a mechanism for generating estimates of subjective probability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)232-257
Number of pages26
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Nov 2007
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


  • Causal explanation
  • Inference to the best explanation
  • Simplicity
  • Subjective probability


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