For Want of a Nail: How Absences Cause Events

Phillip Wolff, Aron K. Barbey, Matthew Hausknecht

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Causation by omission is instantiated when an effect occurs from an absence, as in The absence of nicotine causes withdrawal or Not watering the plant caused it to wilt. The phenomenon has been viewed as an insurmountable problem for process theories of causation, which specify causation in terms of conserved quantities, like force, but not for theories that specify causation in terms of statistical or counterfactual dependencies. A new account of causation challenges these assumptions. According to the force theory, absences are causal when the removal of a force leads to an effect. Evidence in support of this account was found in 3 experiments in which people classified animations of complex causal chains involving force removal, as well as chains involving virtual forces, that is, forces that were anticipated but never realized. In a 4th experiment, the force theory's ability to predict synonymy relationships between different types of causal expressions provided further evidence for this theory over dependency theories. The findings show not only how causation by omission can be grounded in the physical world but also why only certain absences, among the potentially infinite number of absences, are causal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)191-221
Number of pages31
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Causal models
  • Causation
  • Causation by omission
  • Knowledge structures
  • Lexical semantics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychology(all)
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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