Moral empiricism and the bias for act-based rules

Alisabeth Ayars, Shaun Nichols

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Previous studies on rule learning show a bias in favor of act-based rules, which prohibit intentionally producing an outcome but not merely allowing the outcome. Nichols, Kumar, Lopez, Ayars, and Chan (2016) found that exposure to a single sample violation in which an agent intentionally causes the outcome was sufficient for participants to infer that the rule was act-based. One explanation is that people have an innate bias to think rules are act-based. We suggest an alternative empiricist account: since most rules that people learn are act-based, people form an overhypothesis (Goodman, 1955) that rules are typically act-based. We report three studies that indicate that people can use information about violations to form overhypotheses about rules. In study 1, participants learned either three “consequence-based” rules that prohibited allowing an outcome or three “act-based” rules that prohibiting producing the outcome; in a subsequent learning task, we found that participants who had learned three consequence-based rules were more likely to think that the new rule prohibited allowing an outcome. In study 2, we presented participants with either 1 consequence-based rule or 3 consequence-based rules, and we found that those exposed to 3 such rules were more likely to think that a new rule was also consequence based. Thus, in both studies, it seems that learning 3 consequence-based rules generates an overhypothesis to expect new rules to be consequence-based. In a final study, we used a more subtle manipulation. We exposed participants to examples act-based or accident-based (strict liability) laws and then had them learn a novel rule. We found that participants who were exposed to the accident-based laws were more likely to think a new rule was accident-based. The fact that participants’ bias for act-based rules can be shaped by evidence from other rules supports the idea that the bias for act-based rules might be acquired as an overhypothesis from the preponderance of act-based rules.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11-24
Number of pages14
StatePublished - Oct 2017


  • Act/allow distinction
  • Bayesian learning
  • Moral rules
  • Overhypotheses

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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