Causal reasoning in the comprehension of simple narrative texts

Charles R Fletcher, Charles P. Bloom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

169 Scopus citations


This research represents an attempt to unify two separate approaches to the study of text comprehension and recall. The first of these approaches, exemplified by the work of Trabasso and his colleagues (Trabasso & Sperry, 1985, Journal of Memory and Language, 24, 595-611; Trabasso & van den Broek, 1985, Journal of Memory and Language, 24, 612-630) views comprehension as a problem-solving task in which the reader must discover a series of causal links that connect a text's opening to its final outcome. The second approach, typified by Kintsch and van Dijk (1978, Psychological Review, 85, 363-394; van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983, Strategies in discourse comprehension, Academic Press, New York) emphasizes the importance of short-term memory as a bottleneck in the comprehension process. We combine these two approaches by assuming that the most likely causal antecedent to the next sentence is always held in short-term memory. This allows a reader to discover the causal structure of a text within the constraints of a limited-capacity short-term memory. We show that three variables derived from this hypothesis (time in short-term memory, causal connections allowed, and referential connections allowed) account for 31% of the variance in the free recall of propositions from eight simple narrative texts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)235-244
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1988

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported in part by the Center for Research in Learning, Perception, and Cognition at the University of Minnesota, and by Grants MH42468-01 and AFOSR-86-0280 to the first author. We are grateful to Sue Chrysler and Laura Reitz who collected the data, to Tom Trabasso, Jay Samuels, and Marcel Just for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript, and to Paul van den Broek for assistance with the causal analysis. Requests for reprints should be addressed to Charles R. Fletcher, Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455.


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