How causal information affects decisions

Cogn Res Princ Implic. 2020 Feb 13;5(1):6. doi: 10.1186/s41235-020-0206-z.


Background: Causality is inherently linked to decision-making, as causes let us better predict the future and intervene to change it by showing which variables have the capacity to affect others. Recent advances in machine learning have made it possible to learn causal models from observational data. While these models have the potential to aid human decisions, it is not yet known whether the output of these algorithms improves decision-making. That is, causal inference methods have been evaluated on their accuracy at uncovering ground truth, but not the utility of such output for human consumption. Simply presenting more information to people may not have the intended effects, particularly when they must combine this information with their existing knowledge and beliefs. While psychological studies have shown that causal models can be used to choose interventions and predict outcomes, that work has not tested structures of the complexity found in machine learning, or how such information is interpreted in the context of existing knowledge.

Results: Through experiments on Amazon Mechanical Turk, we study how people use causal information to make everyday decisions about diet, health, and personal finance. Our first experiment, using decisions about maintaining bodyweight, shows that causal information can actually lead to worse decisions than no information at all. In Experiment 2, we test decisions about diabetes management, where some participants have personal domain experience and others do not. We find that individuals without such experience are aided by causal information, while individuals with experience do worse. Finally, our last two experiments probe how prior experience interacts with causal information. We find that while causal information reduces confidence in individuals with prior experience, it has the opposite effect on those without experience. In Experiment 4 we show that our results are not due to an inability to use causal models, and that they may be due to familiarity with a domain rather than actual knowledge.

Conclusion: While causal inference can potentially lead to more informed decisions, we find that more work is needed to make causal models useful for the types of decisions found in daily life.

Keywords: Bayesian networks; Causality; Decision-making.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Young Adult