Diagnostic reasoning with circumstantial evidence

Richard A. Carlson, Don E. Dulany

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32 Scopus citations


Individuals often evaluate hypotheses about the cause of particular events on the basis of circumstantial evidence. This article describes a quantitative model of belief revision with circumstantial evidence. The model assumes that subjects revise belief on the basis of a cascaded reasoning process that combines beliefs about three premises-the association of a clue and a possible cause, and forward and backward implications of the clue-to revise belief in a causal hypothesis. Subjects in three experiments solved fictional murder mysteries, reporting on each trial a subset of the beliefs specified by the model. Experiment 1 demonstrates that the model provides a good account of the reasoning process, over several contexts in which clues are evaluated. Subjects appear to develop causal models that affect the interpretation of clues. Experiment 2 provides further evidence on the development of causal models and compares the present model with a model based on Bayes' theorem. Experiment 3 is a control experiment which demonstrates that the belief assessments used in Experiments 1 and 2 do not alter the process of belief revision. Tests of subjects' memory for suspect-clue associations provide further support for the hypothesis that subjects develop causal models of the true cause and demonstrate the contrast between reasoning with currently available information and retrospective access to the facts on which belief revision is based. The present view is compared with other theories of causal thinking and belief revision.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)463-492
Number of pages30
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1988

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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