When Knowledge Matters to Causation

24 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2010 Last revised: 24 Oct 2010

See all articles by Barbara A. Spellman

Barbara A. Spellman

University of Virginia School of Law

Christopher Holland

University of Virginia - McIntire School of Commerce

Date Written: July 16, 2010


Criminal and tort law are notably concerned with both actions and mental states. It is commonsensical to punish people who intended something bad to happen because they are “bad people” and might be likely to do it again. But why punish (of hold liable) people who merely “knew” or “should have known” that something bad could possibly happen – even if they neither wanted nor intended it to occur? Consistent with other research, we believe that people with such knowledge are viewed as more causal than people without such knowledge. In three scenarios involving complex causation (two involving superceding intervening causes), we measured people’s causal attributions and their responses to hypotheticals about what the main character or other people (i.e., “reasonable people”) would have thought or done given different knowledge. What the characters actually knew, what participants thought they should have known, and what participants thought other people would have done in similar circumstances were all related to causal attributions. These results are consistent with causal research showing that causes are things that change the probability of the outcome occurring relative to some baseline.

Keywords: Causation, Attribution, Reasonable Person, Psychology

Suggested Citation

Spellman, Barbara A. and Holland, Christopher, When Knowledge Matters to Causation (July 16, 2010). 5th Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1641474 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1641474

Barbara A. Spellman (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

Christopher Holland

University of Virginia - McIntire School of Commerce ( email )

P.O. Box 400173
Charlottesville, VA 22904-4173
United States

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