Observing and intervening: Rational and heuristic models of causal decision making


Recently, a number of rational theories have been put forward which provide a coherent formal framework for modeling different types of causal inferences, such as prediction, diagnosis, and action planning. A hallmark of these theories is their capacity to simultaneously express probability distributions under observational and interventional scenarios, thereby rendering it possible to derive precise predictions about interventions (“doing”) from passive observations (“seeing”). In Part 1 of the paper we discuss different modeling approaches for formally representing interventions and review the empirical evidence on how humans draw causal inferences based on observations or interventions. We contrast deterministic interventions with imperfect actions yielding unreliable or unknown outcomes. In Part 2, we discuss alternative strategies for making interventional decisions when the causal structure is unknown to the agent. A Bayesian approach of rational causal inference, which aims to infer the structure and its parameters from the available data, provides the benchmark model. This account is contrasted with a heuristic approach which knows categories of causes and effects but neglects further structural information. The results of computer simulations show that despite its computational parsimony the heuristic approach achieves very good performance compared to the Bayesian model.

The Open Psychology Journal, 3, 119–135