Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 24, Issue 5, pp 1488–1500 | Cite as

Evaluating everyday explanations

  • Jeffrey C. Zemla
  • Steven Sloman
  • Christos Bechlivanidis
  • David A. Lagnado
Brief Report


People frequently rely on explanations provided by others to understand complex phenomena. A fair amount of attention has been devoted to the study of scientific explanation, and less on understanding how people evaluate naturalistic, everyday explanations. Using a corpus of diverse explanations from Reddit’s “Explain Like I’m Five” and other online sources, we assessed how well a variety of explanatory criteria predict judgments of explanation quality. We find that while some criteria previously identified as explanatory virtues do predict explanation quality in naturalistic settings, other criteria, such as simplicity, do not. Notably, we find that people have a preference for complex explanations that invoke more causal mechanisms to explain an effect. We propose that this preference for complexity is driven by a desire to identify enough causes to make the effect seem inevitable.


Causal reasoning Knowledge Explanation 

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeffrey C. Zemla
    • 1
  • Steven Sloman
    • 1
  • Christos Bechlivanidis
    • 2
  • David A. Lagnado
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological SciencesBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA
  2. 2.University College LondonLondonUK

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