Memory accessibility shapes explanation: Testing key claims of the inherence heuristic account
People understand the world by constructing explanations for what they observe. It is thus important to identify the cognitive processes underlying these judgments. According to a recent proposal, everyday explanations are often constructed heuristically: Because people need to generate explanations on a moment-by-moment basis, they cannot perform an exhaustive search through the space of possible reasons, but may instead use the information that is most easily accessible in memory (Cimpian & Salomon 2014a, b). In the present research, we tested two key claims of this proposal that have so far not been investigated. First, we tested whether—as previously hypothesized—the information about an entity that is most accessible in memory tends to consist of inherent or intrinsic facts about that entity, rather than extrinsic (contextual, historical, etc.) facts about it (Studies 1 and 2). Second, we tested the implications of this difference in the memory accessibility of inherent versus extrinsic facts for the process of generating explanations: Does the fact that inherent facts are more accessible than relevant extrinsic facts give rise to an inherence bias in the content of the explanations generated (Studies 3 and 4)? The findings supported the proposal that everyday explanations are generated in part via a heuristic process that relies on easily accessible—and often inherent—information from memory.
KeywordsExplanation Heuristics Inherence heuristic Memory Accessibility
We are grateful to our participants, to the Cognitive Development Lab at the University of Illinois for research assistance and helpful discussion, and to Zach Horne, John Hummel, Sunny Khemlani, and Brian Ross for their insightful comments on a previous draft of the manuscript. This research was supported by a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (L.J.H.) and by research funds from the University of Illinois and New York University (A.C.).
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