Much Ado About Nothing: The Mental Representation of Omissive Relations

When the absence of an event causes some outcome, it is an instance of omissive causation. For instance, not eating lunch may cause you to be hungry. Recent psychological proposals concur that the mind represents causal relations, including omissive causal relations, through mental simulation, but they disagree on the form of that simulation. One theory states that people represent omissive causes as force vectors; another states that omissions are representations of contrasting counterfactual simulations; a third argues that people think about omissions by representing sets of iconic possibilities – mental models – in a piecemeal fashion. In this paper, we tease apart the empirical predictions of the three theories and describe experiments that run counter to two of them. Experiments 1 and 2 show that reasoners can infer temporal relations from omissive causes – a pattern that contravenes the force theory. Experiment 3 asked participants to list the possibilities consistent with an omissive cause – it found that they tended to list particular privileged possibilities first, most often, and faster than alternative possibilities. The pattern is consistent with the model theory, but inconsistent with the contrast hypothesis. We marshal the evidence and explain why it helps to solve a long-standing debate about how the mind represents omissions.

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