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Causal cognition

PSYCH 291 @ Stanford, Spring 2019

Causality is central to our understanding of the world and of each other. We think causally when we predict what will happen in the future, infer what happened in the past, and interpret other people’s actions and emotions. Causality is intimately linked to explanation – to answering questions about why something happened. In this discussion-based seminar class, we will first read foundational work in philosophy that introduces the main frameworks for thinking about causation. We will then read some work on formal and computational theories of causation that was inspired by these philosophical frameworks. Equipped with this background, we will study the psychology of causal learning, reasoning, and judgment. We will tackle questions such as: How can we learn about the causal structure of the world through observation and active intervention? What is the relationship between causal reasoning and mental simulation? Why do we select to talk about some causes over others when several causes led to an outcome? Toward the end of the course, we will discuss how what we have learned about causation in psychology may inform other fields of inquiry, such as legal science as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Instructor info

Tobias Gerstenberg

Tobi Gerstenberg, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Psychology

Office hours: Friday 10-11am (or by appointment),

Office: 420-302 (in Jordan Hall)


Schedule overview

The class meets on Mondays between 3:30 and 6:20PM in 160-323 (Wallenberg Hall).

Note: This syllabus is not final. I will adapt the readings based on your interests!

A sign-up sheet for leading discussion in class is available here.

Detailed schedule

The readings will be made available through Canvas.

4/1 Introduction & logistics
4/8 Causality in thought

Note: We’ll have class until 5pm and it would be great if you joined in afterwards for my talk at the Center for Mind, Brain, Computation and Technology.

Causality in cognition

Understanding “why”: The role of causality in cognition

4/15 Philosophy of causation

Philosophy & Psychology of causation

Concepts of causation


4/22 Theories of causation

Process theories

Dependence theories


4/29 Causal perception

Perceiving causation

Perception or cognition?


5/6 Causal learning

The development of causal reasoning

Causal learning in adults

5/13 Causal reasoning

Causal reasoning and counterfactuals

The problem of causal selection


5/20 Causal judgment

Causation and physics

Intuitive theories


5/27 Memorial day (no class)
6/3 Causality in AI and in the Law

Causality in AI

Causality in the law


General information

What to expect?

In “A Vision for Stanford”, university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne states that Stanford wants to be

“an inspired, inclusive and collaborative community of diverse scholars, students and staff, where all are supported and empowered to thrive.”

Let’s try our best together in this seminar to make this happen!

What you can expect from me

I will …

What I expect from you

You will …


Final paper

The final project may be one of the following three:

  1. An empirical project proposal.
  2. A literature review based on one of the class topics.
  3. An essay.
    • Here is a list of example essay questions:
      • What is the relationship between causal cognition and causal perception?
      • In what way are counterfactual thinking and causal thinking related?
      • How many concepts of causation are there? What are the arguments in favor of causal pluralism versus a unified concept of causation?
      • What role does causality play in artificial intelligence?
      • Should legal theorists care about the ordinary person’s concept of causation?
      • How do children and adults learn about the causal structure of the world?

A short final paper proposal (1/2 page) will be due on May, 26th at 10pm.

The final paper (2000–3000 words) will be due on June, 9th at 10pm.

Reaction posts

Here are some guiding thoughts on how to write a good reaction post:

The reaction posts should be concise (one or two paragraphs per paper), and should be submitted by Sunday at 10pm the latest via Canvas.


Please familiarize yourself with Stanford’s honor code. We will adhere to it and follow through on its penalty guidelines.


Students who may need an academic accommodation based on the impact of a disability must initiate the request with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). Professional staff will evaluate the request with required documentation, recommend reasonable accommodations, and prepare an Accommodation Letter for faculty dated in the current quarter in which the request is being made. Students should contact the OAE as soon as possible since timely notice is needed to coordinate accommodations. The OAE is located at 563 Salvatierra Walk (phone: 723-1066, URL:

Stanford is committed to ensuring that all courses are financially accessible to its students. If you require assistance with the cost of course textbooks, supplies, materials and/or fees, you should contact the Diversity & First-Gen Office (D-Gen) at to learn about the FLIbrary and other resources they have available for support.

Stanford offers several tutoring and coaching services:


I welcome feedback regarding the course at any point. Please feel free to talk with me after class, come to office hours, email me, or leave anonymous feedback using this online form.