I don’t know if you did it, but I know why: A ‘motive’ preference at multiple stages of the legal-investigative process

AbstractWhat makes an explanation satisfying? Much work has investigated explanatory preferences for things like animals and artefacts, but how do explanation preferences manifest in everyday life? Here, we focus on the criminal justice system as a case study. In this domain, outcomes critically depend on how members of the system (e.g., lawyers, jurors) generate and interpret explanations. We investigate lay preferences for two different classes of explanations: those that appeal to ‘mechanistic’ aspects of a crime (i.e., how the culprit committed the crime) vs. ‘teleological’ aspects of that crime (i.e., the purpose of the crime). In two experiments, we demonstrate that people have a systematic preference for 'motive' accounts of crimes (analogous to a teleology preference) at different stages of the investigative process. We discuss these findings in light of a broad literature on the cognitive basis of explanation preferences. We also discuss implications for the criminal justice system.

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