Inductive reasoning about causally transmitted properties

Patrick Shafto, Charles Kemp, Elizabeth Baraff Bonawitz, John D. Coley, Joshua B. Tenenbaum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

29 Scopus citations


Different intuitive theories constrain and guide inferences in different contexts. Formalizing simple intuitive theories as probabilistic processes operating over structured representations, we present a new computational model of category-based induction about causally transmitted properties. A first experiment demonstrates undergraduates' context-sensitive use of taxonomic and food web knowledge to guide reasoning about causal transmission and shows good qualitative agreement between model predictions and human inferences. A second experiment demonstrates strong quantitative and qualitative fits to inferences about a more complex artificial food web. A third experiment investigates human reasoning about complex novel food webs where species have known taxonomic relations. Results demonstrate a double-dissociation between the predictions of our causal model and a related taxonomic model [Kemp, C., & Tenenbaum, J. B. (2003). Learning domain structures. In Proceedings of the 25th annual conference of the cognitive science society]: the causal model predicts human inferences about diseases but not genes, while the taxonomic model predicts human inferences about genes but not diseases. We contrast our framework with previous models of category-based induction and previous formal instantiations of intuitive theories, and outline challenges in developing a complete model of context-sensitive reasoning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)175-192
Number of pages18
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 1 2008
Externally publishedYes


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Inductive reasoning
  • Property induction

Cite this