When does information about causal structure improve statistical reasoning?

Simon McNair, Aidan Feeney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Base rate neglect on the mammography problem can be overcome by explicitly presenting a causal basis for the typically vague false-positive statistic. One account of this causal facilitation effect is that people make probabilistic judgements over intuitive causal models parameterized with the evidence in the problem. Poorly defined or difficult-to-map evidence interferes with this process, leading to errors in statistical reasoning. To assess whether the construction of parameterized causal representations is an intuitive or deliberative process, in Experiment 1 we combined a secondary load paradigm with manipulations of the presence or absence of an alternative cause in typical statistical reasoning problems. We found limited effects of a secondary load, no evidence that information about an alternative cause improves statistical reasoning, but some evidence that it reduces base rate neglect errors. In Experiments 2 and 3 where we did not impose a load, we observed causal facilitation effects. The amount of Bayesian responding in the causal conditions was impervious to the presence of a load (Experiment 1) and to the precise statistical information that was presented (Experiment 3). However, we found less Bayesian responding in the causal condition than previously reported. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of our findings and the suggestion that there may be population effects in the accuracy of statistical reasoning.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)625-645
Number of pages21
JournalThe Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number4
Early online date12 Aug 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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