From counterfactual simulations to responsibility judgments


Tobias Gerstenberg


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Date: February 15, 2017


We are evaluative creatures. When we see people act, we can’t help but think about why they did what they did, and whether it was a good idea. Blaming or praising others requires us to answer at least two questions: What causal role did their action play in bringing about the outcome, and what does the action reveal about the person? To answer the first question, we need a model of how the world works. To answer the second one, we need a model of how people work – an intuitive theory of decision-making that allows us to reason backward from observed actions to the underlying mental states that caused them.

In this talk, I will present a computational framework for modeling causal explanations in terms of counterfactual simulations, and several lines of experiments testing this framework in the domains of intuitive psychology and intuitive physics. In intuitive psychology, this framework explains how the causal structure of a situation influences the extent to which individuals are held responsible for group outcomes, and how expectations modulate these judgments based on what a person’s action revealed about their disposition. In the domain of intuitive physics, the model predicts people’s causal judgments about a variety of physical scenes, including dynamic collision events, complex situations that involve multiple causes, omissions as causes, and causal responsibility for a system’s stability. It also captures the cognitive processes underlying these judgments as revealed by spontaneous eye movements.

Created: Friday, February 17th, 2017