Professor Peter A White - BA Nottingham, DPhil Oxon


Research group:
Cognitive science
029 208 75371
Tower Building, Park Place

Research summary

My long-term project has been to understand the foundations of causal understanding, the things that underpin all forms of causal perception, causal inference, causal judgement, and causal knowledge. Recently this has taken me into haptic experience. The haptic system is a mechanoreceptor system, meaning that it registers forces in interactions between the body and other things. I have argued that haptic experiences of forces lead to stored representations that can be used to interpret other kinds of perceptual input. My recent research has shown that this can account for the occurrence of visual impressions of force and causality. I am now extending this account to cover visual perception of all kinds of interactions between objects and object motions.

I also study causal judgements made from information about empirical associations between effects and possible causes. Contrary to other theoretical accounts in this area, which have postulated inbuilt competence with either associative learning or rule-based inductive mechanisms, I have argued that this form of judgement is mainly learned and involves treating empirical information as evidence relating to a causal hypothesis. In particular, people seek to account for occurrences of an effect and to assess the strength of possible causes. These principles can be formalised as a weighted averaging model, and I have shown that this model predicts numerous phenomena of causal judgement. I am also researching other topics in causal cognition, including the role of resemblance information in causal inference, the understanding of causal processes in nature, such as food web dynamics, and inferences about the structure of causal systems.

Teaching summary

I lecture on the final year module PS3402, Causal Cognition, which I share with Marc Buehner. The module covers a wide range of topics of fundamental importance to the study of causal understanding. At present I lecture on causal judgement from contingency information, visual impressions of causality, the development of understanding of physical causality, the role of resemblance information in causal inference, and the nature of willed action and whether humans have any insight into the causal mechanisms involved in generating actions. I lecture on PS2007, Social Psychology II. Current topics include the self, causal attribution, and cross-cultural social psychology with an emphasis on causal attribution. I supervise final year projects mostly in the area of visual impressions of force and causality. I run a second year practical on causal attribution, using archival sources such as newspapers. I run tutorial groups at first and second year, and I supervise placement students.

Selected publications (2014 onwards)


Full list of publications


Research topics and related papers

My main concern has been to elucidate the foundations of the understanding of causality in all its aspects: visual perception of causal interactions, causal judgement from empirical information, causal inference, and causal structures. I have proposed that the understanding of physical causality originates with experiences of our own actions on objects mediated by the haptic system (White, 2009a). The haptic system, which comprises articular kinaesthesis and skin pressure receptors, is a mechanoreceptor system. That is, it responds to mechanical energy. Through the haptic system we therefore have the closest possible approach to experience of forces in interactions between objects. When we act on an object we have a complex percept involving information about motor output combined with sensory feedback through the haptic system (both dynamic and kinematic information) and the visual system (kinematic information only), which also registers cross-modal correspondences. This gives rise to a large set of stored representations of such experiences. When we perceive an interaction between objects, such as one billiard ball striking another, the kinematic information in the visual input is matched to one of these stored representations, and that then specifies what the visual information does not provide, namely impressions of force and causality. I am currently testing predictions derived from this account concerning the occurrence of visual impressions of forces.

I am also studying the relationship between impressions of forces and impressions of causality. Imagine that a moving billiard ball (A) contacts a stationary ball (B), whereupon ball A stops moving and ball B starts moving. Observers of this report an impression that ball A causes the motion of ball B, and that vall A exerts a lot of force on ball B but ball B exerts little or none on ball A. In fact Newton’s third law of motion tells us that the objects exert equal and opposite forces on each other: it is as true to say that ball B makes ball A stop as it is to say that ball A makes ball B go. But both causality and force are perceived as operating in just one direction, from A to B (White, 2006, 2007, 2009a). However the causal impression and the force impression are affected in different ways by manipulations of stimulus variables such as the speeds of the objects, indicating that they may be independent components of the visual impression.

It has long been maintained that causal understanding originates with the detection of empirical contingencies: if event A is reliably followed by event B, then we tend to form a judgement that A causes B. I have argued that this is actually a subsidiary development in causal understanding, and depends not on inborm competencies such as associative learning but on acquired rules of inference (White, 2000a). I have proposed that causal judgement of this sort is intended to satisfy two main aims of causal judgement, accounting for occurrences and assessing the strengths of causes. From these principles I derived a simple weighted averaging model of how different kinds of contingency information contribute to causal judgement and this model predicts numerous findings that are not predicted by other models of causal judgement (White, 2008, 2009b). Ultimately, I would argue that this kind of judgement owes more to an understanding of causality as involving force, as an expression of the causal powers of things, than to an understanding of the relation between causality and empirical information.

I have a long-standing interest in the understanding of complex causal structures. I originally studied the judgements people make about food web dynamics. A food web is a network of plant and animal species defined in terms of eating relationships. I have found that people have a hugely oversimplified understanding of food webs as involving linear chains of causal influence, which leads them to infer erroneously that the impacts of changes in the population of a single species will be localised and small. As a result, it appears that we may greatly underestimate the damage done to food webs and ecosystems by human interventions (White, 2000b).

My general interest in causal understanding has led me to rehabilitate an old idea in philosophy, that effects tend to resemble their causes. I argued that in many cases such resemblance arises because properties of the cause are transmitted to the effect, and that this is a common and significant feature of the generation of effects. However it does not hold all the time, and the limits on the generality of property transmission are hard to ascertain. Therefore, the hypothesis of property transmission tends to function as a heuristic for generating causal judgements under conditions of uncertainty. I showed that this can account for numerous phenomena of causal judgement, including magical contagion, where people feel that an object is somehow contaminated with characteristics of a person who once handled it, graphology, where people believe erroneously that characteristics of handwriting reflect corresponding features of the writer’s personality, some cases of illusory correlation, and beliefs in the magical, apotropaic or curative powers of holy relics, among other things (White, 2009c). Ultimately, property transmission may be a clue to a deep understanding of how causality works.


White, P. A. (2009a). Perception of forces exerted by objects in collision events. Psychological Review, 116, 580-601.

White, P. A. (2009b). Accounting for occurrences: An explanation for some novel tendencies in causal judgment from contingency information. Memory and Cognition, 37, 500-513.

 White, P. A. (2009c). Property transmission: an explanatory account of the role of similarity information in causal inference. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 774-793.

White, P. A. (2008). Accounting for occurrences: a new view of the use of contingency information in causal judgement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 34, 204-218.

White, P. A. (2007). Impressions of force in visual perception of collision events: a test of the causal asymmetry hypothesis. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 14, 647-652.

White, P. A. (2006). The causal asymmetry. Psychological Review, 113, 132-147.

White, P. A. (2000). Causal judgement from contingency information: relation between subjective reports and individual tendencies in judgement. Memory and Cognition, 28, 415-426.

White, P. A. (2000b). Naive analysis of food web dynamics: a study of causal judgement about complex physical systems. Cognitive Science, 24, 605-650.

Postgraduate research interests

I study causal understanding and causal judgement in all their aspects. I am concerned with the nature of the fundamental understanding of causality that people possess, with the problem of causal induction, and with the use of contingency/covariation and other kinds of information in causal judgement. I investigate phenomenal causality, the impressions of causality that occur when people view certain kinds of visual stimuli. I am also concerned with people s understanding of causal processes in the natural environment: for example, how they judge effects on all components of a food web when one component is perturbed in some way.

If you are interested in applying for a PhD, or for further information regarding my postgraduate research, please contact me directly (contact details available on the 'Overview' page), or submit a formal application here.

Previous students

Robert West (Attitudes and attitude change)

Leigh James (Hemispheric asymmetries in auditory event-related potentials to linguistic and non-linguistic stimuli)

Gerard Zwier (The concept of progress in social psychologists' views of their discipline)

Nicola Gavey (Causal attributions in counselling)

Undergraduate education

1975: B. A. Hons. (Psychology), Nottingham University. Class II.I.

Postgraduate education

1979: D. Phil. Oxon. Thesis title: "The limits to conscious awareness of mental activity and their relation to verbal reports about mental processes". Supervisors: Dr. Michael Argyle & Dr. David D. Clarke.


1978-1979: Research Associate employed on S.S.R.C. grant held by Dr. Mansur Lalljee, University of Oxford.

1979-1981: Lecturer, Department of Psychology, University College London.

1981-1988: Lecturer, Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, New Zealand. Promoted to Senior Lecturer, 1986.

1989: Appointed to post presently held at Cardiff University. Promoted to Senior Lecturer, 1995. Promoted to Reader, 2001. Promoted to Professor, 2006.