Entropy, order and agency: The cognitive basis of the link between agents and order

AbstractPeople often believe that orderly structures were created by agents. We examine the cognitive basis of this tendency, asking if learned associations or causal reasoning drives us to link order with agents. Causal reasoning predicts that knowledge of an alternative physical-mechanical cause should ‘explain away’ orderliness, weakening the link with agents. In a preregistered experiment, we manipulated the context to provide (or not provide) a physical-mechanical explanation for orderly outcomes, and participants judged if an object or agent had been present. We compared outcomes differing in (a)levels of orderliness and (b)whether context provided an alternative explanation. We found that environmental context ‘explained away’ orderliness, such that participants observing order inferred agency only when there was no alternative explanation. The link between order and agents is moderated by causal reasoning, and is malleable: It can be weakened by understanding alternative causal mechanisms by which order could arise.

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