Implicit questions shape information preferences

AbstractWe ask questions about everything from why clocks tick to why the sky is blue. Although people sometimes prefer teleological explanations over mechanistic explanations in response to ‘why’ questions, why questions are ambiguous–referring either to a ‘how’ question or a ‘for what purpose’ question. In this paper, we examine the relation between these implicit questions and explanation preferences. First, we asked whether people have specific expectations regarding ‘why’ questions: How do they interpret these ambiguous cases and does this vary across domains? Indeed, people have strong, domain-specific expectations that mirror well-documented explanation preferences. People also have preferences about which specific question they would prefer to have answered. In other words, ‘why’ questions are ambiguous but not treated as such — and this has consequences for downstream explanation preferences. We explore these consequences in light of both the philosophical and psychological literature on explanation.

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