Causal Strength Induction From Time Series Data

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Abstract

One challenge when inferring the strength of cause-effect relations from time series data is that the cause and/or effect can exhibit temporal trends. If temporal trends are not accounted for, a learner could infer that a causal relation exists when it does not, or even infer that there is a positive causal relation when the relation is negative, or vice versa. We propose that learners use a simple heuristic to control for temporal trends—that they focus not on the states of the cause and effect at a given instant, but on how the cause and effect change from one observation to the next, which we call transitions. Six experiments were conducted to understand how people infer causal strength from time series data. We found that participants indeed use transitions in addition to states, which helps them to reach more accurate causal judgments (Experiments 1A and 1B). Participants use transitions more when the stimuli are presented in a naturalistic visual format than a numerical format (Experiment 2), and the effect of transitions is not driven by primacy or recency effects (Experiment 3). Finally, we found that participants primarily use the direction in which variables change rather than the magnitude of the change for estimating causal strength (Experiments 4 and 5). Collectively, these studies provide evidence that people often use a simple yet effective heuristic for inferring causal strength from time series data.

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