Teleological explanations, which appeal to a function or purpose (e.g., “kangaroos have long tails for balance”), seem to play a special role within the biological domain. We propose that such explanations are compelling because they are evaluated on the basis of a salient cue: structure-function fit, or the correspondence between a biological feature's form (e.g., tail length) and its function (e.g., balance). Across five studies with 852 participants in total, we find support for three predictions that follow from this proposal. First, we find that function information decreases reliance on mechanistic considerations when evaluating explanations (Experiments 1–3), indicating the presence of a salient, function-based cue. Second, we demonstrate that structure-function fit is the best candidate for this cue (Experiments 3–4). Third, we show that scientifically-unwarranted teleological explanations are more likely to be accepted under speeded and unspeeded conditions when they are high in structure-function fit (Experiment 5). Experiment 5 also finds that structure-function fit extends beyond biology to teleological explanations in other domains. Jointly, these studies provide a new account of how teleological explanations are evaluated and why they are often (but not universally) compelling.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Developmental and Educational Psychology
- Linguistics and Language
- Artificial Intelligence
- Causal reasoning