Professor Peter White
BA Nottingham, DPhil Oxon
My main long-term project has been to understand the foundations of causal understanding, what it is that underpins all forms of causal perception, causal inference, causal judgment, and causal knowledge. As an example of causal perception research, many studies have presented stimuli involving one object coming into contact with another one, upon which the latter starts to move. Observers report an impression that the first object made the second one move. It has long been assumed that this is perception of inanimate physical causality. However, I have been arguing that in fact causal understanding begins with our experience of our own actions on objects, such as simple kicks and pushes. We experience the force we exert in such actions, and that perceptual experience gets stored in memory. When we watch the colliding obect stimulus, a relevant action memory is activated and that is the source of the causal impression we have when we view the stimulus. I am currently working on further research investigation of this.
More recently I have become interested in how human beings perceive things that are extended in time. A billiard ball collision is obviously an example of that, and so is perception of a musical note changing or a finger being rubbed along one's arm. This has led me into several topics to do with temporality in perception. For example, does conscious perception consist of a series of short-lived static frames, or is it updated continuously? What is the minimum temporal resolution of perceptual information? How do we perceive anything happening, when that seems to require past information to be combined with present information? I am developing research on these topics.
I lecture on two second year modules. On PS2007 Social Psychology I give lectures on the self and on causal attribution. On PS2023 Thinking, Emotion, and Consciousness I give lectures on emotion and cognition. I run a second year practical on causal attribution in which students devise tests of hypotheses about causal attribution on spontaneous causal attributions found in archival sources. I run academic tutorials at year 2. I supervise final year projects, mostly working in areas related to causal understanding and learning.
1975: B. A. Hons. (Psychology), Nottingham University. Class II.I.
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.
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, 2009, 2012a). 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 also studying the relationship between impressions of forces and impressions of causality (White, 2017a). 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, 2009). 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 (White, 2014).
I study how people make judgments about cause and effect under conditions of everyday life. There have been many studies of causal judgment from contingency information, which is information about occurrences and nonoccurrences of outcomes when the cause being judged is either present or absent. The case where a cause is absent corresponds to a control condition in an experimental design. However people are rarely if ever able to run control conditions in everyday life. The conditions of everyday life more closely resemble a quasi-experimental time known as the interrupted time series, where a series of observation is made and, at some point, an intervention is made. It is a kind of before-versus-after comparison. I have published some research showing that judgments seem to be based on the difference between the mean values before and after the intervention, which results in insensitivity to some important cues (White, 2015, 2017c).
In recent years I have become interested in aspects of temporality in perception. In a billiard ball collision, a perceptual impression of a causal relation must involve some sort of integration of information over time, and this in turn implies some sort of processing mechanism for retaining and integrating information on short time scales. This led me into a consideration of many issues to do with time and perception. How is perceiving anything happening possible at all, when things happen one moment at a time? Does conscious perception consist of a series of discrete frames like the frames of a film? What is the perceived present moment and what is it there for? Does it have a minimum time scale? I am currently working on a series of papers developing proposals about these fundamental issues (White, 2017b, 2018a, 2018b).
White, P. A. (2018a). Temporal resolution of perceptual information in humans: a review and some implications. Manuscript submitted for publication.
White, P. A. (2018b). Is conscious perception a series of discrete temporal frames? Consciousness and Cognition, 60, 98-126.
White, P. A. (2017). Visual impressions of causality. In M. Waldmann (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Causal Reasoning (pp. 245-264). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
White, P.A. (2017b). The three-second "subjective present": a critical review and a new proposal. Psychological Bulletin, 143, 735-756.
White, P. A. (2017c). Causal judgments about empirical information in an interrupted time series design. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 70, 18-35.
White, P. A. (2015). Causal judgements about temporal sequences of events in single individuals. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68, 2149-2174.
White, P. A. (2014). Perceived causality and perceived force: same or different? Visual Cognition, 22, 672-703.
White, P. A. (2012a). The experience of force: the role of haptic experience of forces in visual perception of object motion and interactions, mental simulation, and motion-related judgments. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 589-615.
White, P. A. (2012b). Visual impressions of causality: effects of manipulating the direction of the target object’s motion in a collision event. Visual Cognition, 20, 121-142.
White, P. A. (2009). Perception of forces exerted by objects in collision events. Psychological Review, 116, 580-601.
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.
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 aspects of temporality in perception, for example how perception of anything that happens is accomplished and whether or not conscious perception proceeds in a series of discrete frames.
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.
Daniel Shiloh (Intentional binding and causal binding)
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)