When something happens bc something else didn’t occur, it’s called “omissive causation” — like when your phone dies because you didn’t charge it. Our new theory in Memory & Cognition predicts how people mentally simulate omissions. It predicts that people should prioritize possibilities corresponding to mental models of omissive causal relations, and that they should be able to distinguish between omissive causes, omissive enabling conditions, and omissive preventers.
Some causal relations refer to causation by commission (e.g., A gunshot causes death), and others refer to causation by omission (e.g., Not breathing causes death). We describe a theory of the representation of omissive causation based on the assumption that people mentally simulate sets of possibilities—mental models—that represent causes, enabling conditions, and preventions (Goldvarg & Johnson-Laird, 2001). The theory holds that omissive causes, enabling conditions, and preventions each refer to distinct sets of possibilities. For any such causal relation, reasoners typically simulate one initial possibility, but they are able to consider alternative possibilities through deliberation. These alternative possibilities allow them to deliberate over finer-grained distinctions when reasoning about causes and effects. Hence, reasoners should be able to distinguish between omissive causes and omissive enabling conditions. Four experiments corroborated the predictions of the theory. We describe them and contrast the results with the predictions of alternative accounts of causal representation and inference.