Professor Marc J Buehner - PhD Sheffield, MA UCLA, Diploma Regensburg
Have you ever asked yourself whether pressing the demand button for a pedestrian crossing on a busy intersection makes any difference? Or wondered how you could speed up hearing about the planning permission for your loft conversion? These are everyday examples of causal reasoning – our ability to understand, learn, and think about the causal regularities permeating all aspects of life. The capacity to appraise causal relations arguably is one of the most fundamental aspects of human cognition. It allows us to fashion and use tools, distinguish friends from foes, figure out whether a particular strategy is working, and decide which is the best way to achieve our goals.
Scientists studying causality all face one fundamental problem: Our sensory system is not equipped to perceive causality directly. Instead, people draw causal inferences based on experience and observation. And cognitive psychologists interested in causation investigate how they do so. My research looks at the role of time in causal induction. For example, how can we separate relevant cause-effect pairings from a continuous stream of events happening around us so that we can notice regular patterns? In other words, how do we structure continuous time into meaningful units of analysis? Does it matter whether the effect happens instantaneously after the cause or can we tolerate delays? If so, when do delays matter, and why?
The above section illustrated a bottom-up process: lower-level perceptual experiences such as co-occurrence patterns between events, as well as their temporal and spatial relations to one another serve as input to cognitive processes which result in mental constructs of causality. Interestingly, the relationship between sensory experience and causality appears to be bi-directional: Not only do sensory experiences shape our causal impressions, it turns out that causal impressions also shape our perceptual experiences in a top-down way. A second line of my research investigates the bi-directional relation between the perception of time and space and notions of causality: “Causal Binding” refers to a number of perceptual distortions that occur when we consider the temporal or spatial relations between cause and effect. The amount of time or space that separates two events appears – subjectively – shorter when the events are causally connected. I am investigating the functional and structural underpinnings of this phenomenon and how it relates to our understanding of intentionality and motor planning.
I teach across all levels of the undergraduate curriculum. At Level 1, I conduct academic tutorials aimed at developing critical thinking and analytic skills. At Level 2, I give lectures in PS2003 (Cognitive Psychology) on reasoning, judgment, and decision making, conduct practical classes in cognitive psychology, and hold academic tutorials in cognitive, developmental, abnormal, and social psychology, and in perception. At Level 3 I teach in PS3402 (Causal Cognition), and supervise research projects on causality, decision making, and temporal discounting. I also give lectures to Year 1 medics students on clinical thinking.
Selected publications (2014 onwards)
Full list of publications
Research topics and related papers
Covariation, Time, and Causality
Contemporary accounts of causal induction inherited the Humean empirical stance that causality cannot be perceived directly but is instead inferred from evidence suggestive of causal relations. Such evidence consists of the temporal priority of cause before effect, temporal and spatial contiguity between them, and constant conjunction (i.e. regularity). In the last few decades, most research has focussed on this last aspect, trying to elucidate how causal beliefs arise from different patterns of covariation. While ‘covariation does not equal causation’ is a well-rehearsed mantra, the conditions under which covariation does license causal conjecture are much less clear. Less obvious still is how different degrees of covariation translate to mental representations of causal strength, or confidence that there is a causal relation. My earlier work has looked at these problems in detail, and together with Patricia Cheng from UCLA I have demonstrated that people adopt a rational framework of computational causal power (Buehner, Cheng & Clifford, 2003) when evaluating causal contingencies.
Naturally, there are other competing theoretical models of contingency based causation, including those based on associative learning theory, Bayesian belief updating, and other decision rules. What is common across all these approaches, however, is that they take it as a given that covariational evidence is available as input to the inductive process. I have argued that this is an implausible assumption, particularly once one leaves the confines of the psychological laboratory: In real life, some causes have immediate effects, while others don’t reveal their consequences until later. To put it differently, causal relations unfold over time, and how they do so will inevitably shape how we learn about them. It has long been known, for instance, that (all else being equal) contiguous relations are easier to learn than delayed ones. However, my own work (Buehner & May, 2002, 2003, 2004; Buehner & McGregor, 2006; Greville & Buehner, 2007) has shown that the relation between contiguity and causality is more complex. More specifically, we have shown that temporal assumptions influence whether or not delays are detrimental or beneficial for causal learning, and we have also shown that temporal information provides informational value on its own, over and above helping to make a regularity more noticeable.
Time is not only central in discovering and learning about causal relations; sometimes, time is at the heart of causal changes. If we have a headache, we could just wait for it to go away on its own, or we could take aspirin to get relief sooner. Likewise, many medical interventions cannot prevent the onset of hereditary diseases, though they might be able to postpone in. In other words, many causal relations do not change whether something happens, but when it does. With Mark Johansen, I am investigating how we reason about such relations, and whether the underlying cognitive principles are similar to those that are applied when evaluating conventional contingencies.
Causal Binding in Space and Time (funded by EPSRC).
The binding problem is at the interface between neuroscience and philosophy. Binding is what ensures intelligent organisms a segregated yet coherent perceptual experience derived from complex sensory input. When we see a red apple and a yellow banana, binding ensures firstly that we see them as unified objects (rather than separate percepts of, say apple-shape and redness), and secondly that red goes with apple and yellow with banana.
Causal binding concerns the linking together in time or space of two events that are causally related. This is useful so that we can develop and maintain a sense of control (where we are effecting change in the world), and to encourage awareness of other lawful regularities not effected by us (where other forces are changing the world around us). Empirically, I have demonstrated temporal causal binding via a subjective shortening of inter-event intervals when the delineating events are causally related (Humphreys & Buehner, 2009, in press; Buehner & Humphreys, 2009). We have also found an analogous subjective contraction of space separating two objects linked by a causal relation (Buehner & Humphreys, 2010).
How exactly binding is realized both functionally as well as structurally, is still unclear. Some research suggests that the internal clock slows down during causal episodes, while other research suggests that binding effects direct shifts in action and event awareness so that cause and effect appear closer in time. Another question is to what extent temporal binding is special to the human motor system, and more specifically to the planning of intentional action. My research (Buehner 7 Humphreys, 2009) suggests that binding is driven by causality, and that intentional action is merely a special case of causality, one where the cause involves human agency.
2005-2008: Causality Induced Perceptual Shifts in Event Perception (EPSRC) £120,000
2005: Confidence, Reliability, and Causal Learning (ESRC) Co-Investigators: York Hagmayer and Peter White £45,498
2002: The Influence of Delay on Human Causal Reasoning (ESRC) Co-Investigator: Jon May £39,840
2002-2003: The Influence of Delay on Human Causal Reasoning (Cardiff Young Researchers) £29,706
2003-2005: Temporal Contiguity and Blocking in Human Causal Reasoning (British Council) Collaboration with Michael Waldmann, Göttingen, Germany £2,860
I’ve also been supported by travel grants from the Royal Society, and summer bursaries from the EPS.
Marc Cavazza (Teesside; perceptual causality in virtual reality)
Patricia Cheng (UCLA; causal power and covariation)
Jon May (Plymouth; delay and causal learning)
Sandra Vera-Muñoz (Notre Dame, USA; causal models in accounting decisions)
Michael Waldmann & York Hagmayer (Göttingen, Germany; temporal contiguity and blocking)
Postgraduate research interests
My main research interests at the moment are causality, timing, and perception, and how these three relate to one another. With respect to causality, I have felt for some time that the current dominant approach, with its focus on probability and contingency suffers is too limited because it cannot take into account variations of cause-effect timing, or causally-induced changes of event timing. So ultimately, the question here is how time influences our conception of causality. In the area of perception, I am interested in the reverse question: How conceptions of causality influence basic aspects of low-level perception, most notably time and space perception. I am also interested in more general aspects of time perceptions and perceptual distortions of time, through agency, intention, or other factors. Timing also features in many areas of decision making (e.g. temporal discounting, planning etc.), and I’d also be interested to supervise projects in this area.
For more information on my research in all of these areas, please see my publications or research pages.
If you are interested in applying for a PhD, or for further information regarding my postgraduate research, please contact me directly (contact details available on the 'Overview' page), or submit a formal application here.
James Greville. James studies how temporal aspects of covariational information influence causal learning. More specifically, he has found that temporal predictability facilitates learning, a finding which is at variance with conventional ideas of learning, including associative learning, where variability of practice typically confers an advantage. He organized a symposium at the 2010 EPS/SEPEX conference on non-covariational cues to causality. James has now taken on a post in Swansea.
Laurel Evans. Laurel is interested in what determines whether people make good choices. She studies this both from a general and an individual differences perspective. On the general level, she has developed a rational model of sampling-based choice, which appears to be superior to various other competing models. On the individual level, she has found that a disposition towards “Need for Cognition” (NFC) may not be as beneficial as previously thought. Individuals high in NFC tend to enjoy mental exercise and analytical thinking. Consequently, it was thought that this style should be taught in schools to improve pupil aptitude. Laurel found, however, that individuals high in NFC tend to spend more time on choice-tasks without any apparent gain in accuracy compared to those low in NFC. Thus, they are less in efficient.
Jon Kennedy (Jointly with Simon Rushton). Jon studied how temporal information from different modalities (e.g. proprioception & vision) is aligned. More specifically, he investigated to what extent the sensory system can adapt to and compensate for misalignment, which naturally occurs due to different nerve conduction times in different modalities or due to growth in development. He investigated whether compensation reflects behavioural change (learning) or perceptual re-alignment. Jon is now a post-doc with Dr. Chris Miall in Birmingham
Gruffydd Humphreys. Gruff has worked on the temporal causal binding project and showed that the binding effect is robust across different experimental procedures, and extends over intervals much longer than previously reported. He also showed that intentionality in the absence of causality fails to result in binding, and hence concluded that ‘causal binding’ rather than ‘intentional binding’ is the correct terminology.
PhD University of Sheffield Cognitive Psychology Supervised by Jon May. Fully funded by European Union Training & Mobility of Researchers Programme
Diploma University of Regensburg, Germany Major: Psychology Minor: Linguistics Final grade: Excellent (1.1) (scale from 1 to 4 where 1 is best)
M.A. University of California, Los Angeles Cognitive Psychology Master's Thesis: Causal Judgment and the Power PC Theory GPA: 3.97 (scale from 1 to 4 where 4 is best)
2010: BPS Cognitive Section Prize
1995-1996: Fulbright Scholar
1993-1997: Friedrich Ebert Fellow
European Society for Cognitive Psychology Experimental Psychology Society
Consulting Editor: Psychonomic Bulletin & Review
Ad-Hoc reviewer for numerous journals, including Psychological Science, Cognitive Psychology, and JEP
Grant reviewing (ESRC, EPSRC, NSF(USA))
Book-proposal consultant (McGraw-Hill, Oxford University Press)
Since August 2011: Reader, School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Wales
August 2007-July 2011: Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Wales
September 2002 - July 2007: Lecturer, School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Wales
Autumn Semester 2001 Autumn Semester 2000: Contract Lecturer, Dept. of Psychology, University of Sheffield
January 2002 – August 2002: Post-Doctoral Researcher, Dept. of Psychology, University of Sheffield
October 1998 – December 2001: Research Associate, Dept. of Psychology, University of Sheffield
February-June 1999: Postgraduate Tutor, Dept. of Psychology, University of Sheffield
November 1997 - September 1998: Research Scientist and Lecturer, University of Technology, Chemnitz, Germany
September - November 1996: Research Intern, Max-Planck Institute for Psychological Research Cognition and Action Group, Munich, Germany
March - April 1995: Research Intern, Fraunhofer Instititute for Industrial Sciences and Organization, Stuttgart, Germany