[PS-2.15] Causal sequences across domains: Evidence from language production

Kaiser, E.

University of Southern California

Causality is crucial for reasoning about the world (Pinker'07). Causal sequences can be segmented into cause and effect, but the cognitive and linguistic primacy of these components is debated. Some argue causal relations in discourse are by default presented in non-iconic effect-cause order (Moeschler'10). Others claim cause-effect order is easier to process because it corresponds to natural event ordering (iconic): causes happen before effects (Mandler'85, Katz/Brent'68). We tested people's production choices in different genres: narratives (Exp1) and safety/warning signs (Exp2). Participants saw two narrative sentences (one describing cause, the other describing effect), (Exp1) or a safety/warning sign with two lines of text (Exp2; e.g. Do not enter / Shock hazard). The sentences/lines were shown one above the other (cause above effect, or effect above cause). After a brief memory task, participants recalled the sentences and combined them into one sentence. We analyzed order of mentioning cause/effect. RESULTS: While narratives exhibit iconic cause-effect order, safety/warning signs are biased towards effect-cause order. Given the semantic differences between narratives and warning signs ('effects' on signs are often urgent commands/prohibitions), this highlights the importance of context/genre, and suggests there is no single answer regarding the primacy/salience of cause vs. effect.