Causal imprinting in causal structure learning

Cogn Psychol. 2012 Nov;65(3):381-413. doi: 10.1016/j.cogpsych.2012.07.001. Epub 2012 Aug 1.


Suppose one observes a correlation between two events, B and C, and infers that B causes C. Later one discovers that event A explains away the correlation between B and C. Normatively, one should now dismiss or weaken the belief that B causes C. Nonetheless, participants in the current study who observed a positive contingency between B and C followed by evidence that B and C were independent given A, persisted in believing that B causes C. The authors term this difficulty in revising initially learned causal structures "causal imprinting." Throughout four experiments, causal imprinting was obtained using multiple dependent measures and control conditions. A Bayesian analysis showed that causal imprinting may be normative under some conditions, but causal imprinting also occurred in the current study when it was clearly non-normative. It is suggested that causal imprinting occurs due to the influence of prior knowledge on how reasoners interpret later evidence. Consistent with this view, when participants first viewed the evidence showing that B and C are independent given A, later evidence with only B and C did not lead to the belief that B causes C.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Association Learning*
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Concept Formation
  • Humans
  • Imprinting, Psychological*
  • Judgment
  • Models, Psychological