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Journal Article

Making sense of (exceptional) causal relations. A cross-cultural and cross-linguistic study


Brown,  Penelope
Other Research, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Le Guen, O., Samland, J., Friedrich, T., Hanus, D., & Brown, P. (2015). Making sense of (exceptional) causal relations. A cross-cultural and cross-linguistic study. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 1645. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01645.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0028-DAC2-E
In order to make sense of the world, humans tend to see causation almost everywhere. Although most causal relations may seem straightforward, they are not always construed in the same way cross-culturally. In this study, we investigate concepts of ‘chance’, ‘coincidence’ or ‘randomness’ that refer to assumed relations between intention, action, and outcome in situations, and we ask how people from different cultures make sense of such non-law-like connections. Based on a framework proposed by Alicke (2000), we administered a task that aims to be a neutral tool for investigating causal construals cross-culturally and cross-linguistically. Members of four different cultural groups, rural Mayan Yucatec and Tseltal speakers from Mexico and urban students from Mexico and Germany, were presented with a set of scenarios involving various types of causal and non-causal relations and were asked to explain the described events. Three links varied as to whether they were present or not in the scenarios: Intention to Action, Action to Outcome, and Intention to Outcome. Our results show that causality is recognized in all four cultural groups. However, how causality and especially non-law-like causality are interpreted depends on the type of links, the cultural background and the language used. In all three groups, Action to Outcome is the decisive link for recognizing causality. Despite the fact that the two Mayan groups share similar cultural backgrounds, they display different ideologies regarding concepts of non-law causality. The data suggests that the concept of ‘chance’ is not universal, but seems to be an explanation that only some cultural groups draw on to make sense of specific situations. Of particular importance is the existence of linguistic concepts in each language that trigger ideas of causality in the responses from each cultural group