Mental Jenga: A counterfactual simulation model of causal judgments about physical support

Abstract

From building towers to picking an orange from a stack of fruit, assessing support is critical for successfully interacting with the physical world. But how do people determine whether one object supports another? In this paper, we develop the Counterfactual Simulation Model (CSM) of causal judgments about physical support. The CSM predicts that people judge physical support by mentally simulating what would happen to a scene if the object of interest were removed. Three experiments test the model by asking one group of participants to judge what would happen to a tower if one of the blocks were removed, and another group of participants how responsible that block was for the tower’s stability. The CSM accurately captures participants’ predictions by running noisy simulations that incorporate different sources of uncertainty. Participants’ responsibility judgments are closely related to counterfactual predictions: a block is more responsible when many other blocks would fall if it were removed. By construing physical support as preventing from falling, the CSM provides a unified account of how causal judgments in dynamic and static physical scenes arise from the process of counterfactual simulation.

Publication
Zhou L., Smith K. A., Tenenbaum J. B., Gerstenberg T. (2022). Mental Jenga: A counterfactual simulation model of causal judgments about physical support. In PsyArXiv.
Date

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