Explanation as a cognitive process

Zachary Horne, Melis Muradoglu, Andrei Cimpian

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


n the present opinion article, we argue that research on the cognitive inputs to explanation should be much more prominent in the cognitive science of explanation than it currently is. How do the characteristics of attention, memory, metacognition, etc., shape the process by which people generate explanations?
We sketch several lines along which this research could proceed, and then we provide an example of work inspired by this approach. Specifically, we detail recent research suggesting that, due to several information-processing constraints, explanations exhibit a bias toward inherent or intrinsic features.
Understanding how people explain is a core task for cognitive science. In this opinion article, we argue that research on explanation would benefit from more engagement with how the cognitive systems involved in generating explanations (e.g., attention, long-term memory) shape the outputs of this process. Although it is clear that these systems do shape explanation, surprisingly little research has investigated how they might do so. We outline the proposed mechanistic approach to explanation and illustrate it with an example: the recent research that suggests explanations exhibit a bias toward inherent information. Taking advantage of what we know about the operating parameters of the human mind is likely to yield new insights into how people come up with explanations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)187-199
JournalTrends in Cognitive Sciences
Issue number3
Early online date15 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019


  • explanation
  • attention
  • long -term memory
  • working memory
  • metacognition
  • inherence bias


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