The explanatory structure of unexplainable events: Causal constraints on magical reasoning

Psychon Bull Rev. 2017 Oct;24(5):1573-1585. doi: 10.3758/s13423-016-1206-3.


A common intuition, often captured in fiction, is that some impossible events (e.g., levitating a stone) are "more impossible" than others (e.g., levitating a feather). We investigated the source of this intuition, hypothesizing that graded notions of impossibility arise from explanatory considerations logically precluded by the violation at hand but still taken into account. Studies 1-4 involved college undergraduates (n = 357), and Study 5 involved preschool-aged children (n = 32). In Studies 1 and 2, participants saw pairs of magical spells that violated one of 18 causal principles-six physical, six biological, and six psychological-and were asked to indicate which spell would be more difficult to learn. Both spells violated the same causal principle but differed in their relation to a subsidiary principle. Participants' judgments of spell difficulty honored the subsidiary principle, even when participants were given the option of judging the two spells equally difficult. Study 3 replicated those effects with Likert-type ratings; Study 4 replicated them in an open-ended version of the task in which participants generated their own causal violations; and Study 5 replicated them with children. Taken together, these findings suggest that events that defy causal explanation are interpreted in terms of explanatory considerations that hold in the absence of such violations.

Keywords: Causal reasoning; Cognitive development; Concepts; High order cognition.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Intuition*
  • Logic*
  • Magic / psychology*
  • Thinking*