Confidence and gradation in causal judgment.

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats


Citation Stats


When comparing the roles of the lightning strike and the dry climate in causing the forest fire, one might think that the lightning strike is more of a cause than the dry climate, or one might think that the lightning strike completely caused the fire while the dry conditions did not cause it at all. Psychologists and philosophers have long debated whether such causal judgments are graded; that is, whether people treat some causes as stronger than others. To address this debate, we first reanalyzed data from four recent studies. We found that causal judgments were actually multimodal: although most causal judgments made on a continuous scale were categorical, there was also some gradation. We then tested two competing explanations for this gradation: the confidence explanation, which states that people make graded causal judgments because they have varying degrees of belief in causal relations, and the strength explanation, which states that people make graded causal judgments because they believe that causation itself is graded. Experiment 1 tested the confidence explanation and showed that gradation in causal judgments was indeed moderated by confidence: people tended to make graded causal judgments when they were unconfident, but they tended to make more categorical causal judgments when they were confident. Experiment 2 tested the causal strength explanation and showed that although confidence still explained variation in causal judgments, it did not explain away the effects of normality, causal structure, or the number of candidate causes. Overall, we found that causal judgments were multimodal and that people make graded judgments both when they think a cause is weak and when they are uncertain about its causal role.





Published Version (Please cite this version)


Publication Info

O'Neill, Kevin, Paul Henne, Paul Bello, John Pearson and Felipe De Brigard (2022). Confidence and gradation in causal judgment. Cognition, 223. p. 105036. 10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105036 Retrieved from

This is constructed from limited available data and may be imprecise. To cite this article, please review & use the official citation provided by the journal.



John Pearson

Assistant Professor of Neurobiology

Our lab builds quantitative tools and theories to understand how brains control bodies to learn and survive in a complex world. In particular, we are interested in the process by which organisms like songbirds learn complex motor skills without external reinforcement, the way simple information processing principles can explain the organization of early sensory systems, and how complex behaviors like swimming and grasping are coordinated across the brain. To this end, we also design software tools and algorithm that allow us to model and perturb neural systems in real time.

De Brigard

Felipe De Brigard

Fuchsberg-Levine Family Associate Professor

Most of my research focuses on the way in which memory and imagination interact. So far, I have explored ways in which episodic memory both guides and constrains episodic counterfactual thinking (i.e., thoughts about alternative ways in which past personal events could have occurred), and how this interaction affects the perceived plausibility of imagined counterfactual events. I also explore the differential contribution of episodic and semantic memory in the generation of different kinds of counterfactual simulations, as well as the effect of counterfactual thinking on the memories they derive from. In addition, my research attempts to understand how prior experience helps to constrain the way in which we reconstruct episodic memories. Finally, I am also interested in the role of internal attention during conscious recollection. To address these issues I use behavioral and functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques, as well as the conceptual rigor of philosophical analysis.

Unless otherwise indicated, scholarly articles published by Duke faculty members are made available here with a CC-BY-NC (Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial) license, as enabled by the Duke Open Access Policy. If you wish to use the materials in ways not already permitted under CC-BY-NC, please consult the copyright owner. Other materials are made available here through the author’s grant of a non-exclusive license to make their work openly accessible.