Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 24, Issue 5, pp 1436–1450 | Cite as

Contextual utility affects the perceived quality of explanations

  • Nadya Vasilyeva
  • Daniel Wilkenfeld
  • Tania Lombrozo
Brief Report


Are explanations of different kinds (formal, mechanistic, teleological) judged differently depending on their contextual utility, defined as the extent to which they support the kinds of inferences required for a given task? We report three studies demonstrating that the perceived “goodness” of an explanation depends on the evaluator’s current task: Explanations receive a relative boost when they support task-relevant inferences, even when all three explanation types are warranted. For example, mechanistic explanations receive higher ratings when participants anticipate making further inferences on the basis of proximate causes than when they anticipate making further inferences on the basis of category membership or functions. These findings shed light on the functions of explanation and support pragmatic and pluralist approaches to explanation.


Explanation Inference Inductive utility Context Pragmatic factors 



This work was supported by the Varieties of Understanding Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. We are grateful to Daria Serrano Cargol, Siqi Liu and Marc Collado-Ramírez for assistance in preparation of materials and data collection.

Supplementary material

13423_2017_1275_MOESM1_ESM.docx (6 mb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 5.97 mb)


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nadya Vasilyeva
    • 1
  • Daniel Wilkenfeld
    • 2
  • Tania Lombrozo
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of California BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA
  2. 2.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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