Biology, Society, or Choice: How Do Non-Experts Interpret Explanations of Behaviour?

Daniel Nettle*, Willem E. Frankenhuis, Karthik Panchanathan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Explanations for human behaviour can be framed in many different ways, from the social-structural context to the individual motivation down to the neurobiological implementation. We know comparatively little about how people interpret these explanatory framings, and what they infer when one kind of explanation rather than another is made salient. In four experiments, UK general-population volunteers read vignettes describing the same behaviour, but providing explanations framed in different ways. In Study 1, we found that participants grouped explanations into ‘biological’, ‘psychological’ and ‘sociocultural’ clusters. Explanations with different framings were often seen as incompatible with one another, especially when one belonged to the ‘biological’ cluster and the other did not. In Study 2, we found that exposure to a particular explanatory framing triggered inferences beyond the information given. Specifically, psychological explanations led participants to assume the behaviour was malleable, and biological framings led them to assume it was not. In Studies 3A and 3B, we found that the choice of explanatory framing can affect people’s assumptions about effective interventions. For example, presenting a biological explanation increased people’s conviction that interventions like drugs would be effective, and decreased their conviction that psychological or socio-political interventions would be effective. These results illuminate the intuitive psychology of explanations, and also potential pitfalls in scientific communication. Framing an explanation in a particular way will often generate inferences in the audience—about what other factors are not causally important, how easy it is to change the behaviour, and what kinds of remedies are worth considering—that the communicator may not have anticipated and might not intend.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)625-651
Number of pages27
JournalOpen Mind
Publication statusPublished - 20 Aug 2023
Externally publishedYes

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