Are Symptom Clusters Explanatory? A Study in Mental Disorders and Non-Causal Explanation


Three experiments investigate whether and why people accept explanations for symptoms that appeal to mental disorders, such as: “She experiences delusions because she has schizophrenia.” Such explanations are potentially puzzling, as mental disorder diagnoses are made on the basis of symptoms rather than causes. Do laypeople nonetheless conceptualize mental disorder classifications in causal terms? Or is this an instance of non-causal explanation? Experiment 1 shows that such explanations are found explanatory. Experiment 2 presents participants with novel disorders that are stipulated to involve or not involve an underlying cause across symptoms and people. Disorder classifications are found more explanatory when a causal basis is stipulated, or when participants infer that one is present (even after it’s denied in the text). Finally, Experiment 3 finds that merely having a principled, but non-causal, basis for defining symptom clusters is insufficient to reach the explanatory potential of categories with a stipulated common cause.

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