Causing Time: Evaluating causal changes to the when rather than the whether of an outcome

W. James Greville, Marc J. Buehner, Mark K. Johansen

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Studies of human causal learning typically conceptualize an effect as the presence or absence of an outcome or event in a given trial following a cause. However, causes may exert their influence in other ways; notably by advancing or postponing the time at which an outcome occurs. Prior research has not examined how humans evaluate causal changes where the change in timing itself is the effect of interest. This research took a first step in this direction by investigating whether participants can accurately judge cause-effect contingencies when the effect is a change in outcome timing, as distinct from outcome occurrence: A change to the when of the outcome rather than to the whether. Three experiments presented scenarios where a candidate cause could either advance or postpone an inevitable outcome by a given amount of time and with a given probability. Consistent with previous research on judgments about event occurrence, participants gave higher ratings to scenarios with greater contingency. These effects were generally consistent for actions that advanced or postponed the outcome. Overall, our findings demonstrate that people are sensitive to probabilistic contrasts involving causal changes in event timing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)200-211
Number of pages12
JournalMemory & Cognition
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 8 Feb 2020


  • Causality
  • Temporal Contiguity
  • Contingency Judgement
  • Causal learning


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