Steven Sloman

(401) 863-7595
Office Location: 
Metcalf 333
Research Focus: 
Causal reasoning, decision making, categorization

Steven Sloman received his B.Sc. from the University of Toronto in 1986 and his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University in 1990. He is a computationally oriented cognitive psychologist who studies how people think. He has studied how people categorize the world and the relation between our names for things and our thoughts about things. He has also studied inductive inference, judgments of probability, decision making, and reasoning. Steve's current work focuses in large part on how people reason causally about the world. These interests are reflected in his book, Causal Models: How We Think About the World and Its Alternatives, published by Oxford University Press in 2005.

Research Interests:

Steven Sloman's research focuses on causal reasoning, decision-making, and categorization. He is concerned with the cognitive processes underlying inductive inference. How are people able, despite limited knowledge and experience, to adapt and reason in a world that is constantly changing? His main approach is to experimentally test formal models of decision making, reasoning and judgment. One set of issues Sloman studies concerns how people reason about cause. We draw causal inferences every time we make a decision because we have to reason about the consequences of the options available to us. Causation is special because all knowledge may be structured around our understanding of causal mechanism. Yet, causal relations cannot directly be observed and seem to require an assessment of counterfactuals, events that have not actually occurred. (Simplifying, if A causes B, then B wouldn't have occurred if A hadn't, even if A did occur.) 

Ongoing research examines the viability of formal, probabilistic models of causal and counterfactual inference and induction. One focus concerns people's sensitivity to the distinction between observation and action. Through action, people can run mini-experiments that might afford causal inference. 

Sloman also studies several issues of categorization. First, do people have fixed categories of things in their heads or are categories completely determined by specific categorization tasks? For example, how well do the categories we use to name things correspond to the categories we use to induce the properties of things? Second, what are the "core" or central properties of an object and what makes them so important? The answer may have something to do with the causal activities that we engage in with the object. 

Sloman also studies judgments of confidence and probability. The goal in this research is to understand the principles of coherence that underlie our beliefs. What makes evidence seem consistent with an hypothesis? In what sense and to what degree do our judgments have a rational basis?