Before assigning responsibility, our minds simulate alternative outcomes, study shows.
Anne Trafton | MIT News Office
October 17, 2017
“What’s really cool about eye tracking is it lets you see things that you’re not consciously aware of,” Professor Josh Tenenbaum says. “When psychologists and philosophers have proposed the idea of counterfactual simulation, they haven’t necessarily meant that you do this consciously. It’s something going on behind the surface, and eye tracking is able to reveal that.”
How do people assign a cause to events they witness? Some philosophers have suggested that people determine responsibility for a particular outcome by imagining what would have happened if a suspected cause had not intervened.
This kind of reasoning, known as counterfactual simulation, is believed to occur in many situations. For example, soccer referees deciding whether a player should be credited with an “own goal” — a goal accidentally scored for the opposing team — must try to determine what would have happened had the player not touched the ball.
This process can be conscious, as in the soccer example, or unconscious, so that we are not even aware we are doing it. Using technology that tracks eye movements, cognitive scientists at MIT have now obtained the first direct evidence that people unconsciously use counterfactual simulation to imagine how a situation could have played out differently.
“This is the first time that we or anybody have been able to see those simulations happening online, to count how many a person is making, and show the correlation between those simulations and their judgments,” says Josh Tenenbaum, a professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, a member of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and the senior author of the new study.
Tobias Gerstenberg, a postdoc at MIT who will be joining Stanford’s Psychology Department as an assistant professor next year, is the lead author of the paper, which appears in the Oct. 17 issue of Psychological Science. Other authors of the paper are MIT postdoc Matthew Peterson, Stanford University Associate Professor Noah Goodman, and University College London Professor David Lagnado.
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