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The flow of social experience frequently challenges us to recognize empirical covariations. Sometimes, these covariations are merely another test of our powers of observation and are of no immediate practical concern to us. At other times – for example, when those covariations involve early symptoms of problems and later manifestations, or behavioral strategies employed and outcomes obtained, or relatively overt characteristics of people or situations and relatively covert ones – such detection abilities may help to determine our success in adapting to the demands of everyday social life. More generally, covariation detection will play a large role in our continuing struggle as “intuitive scientists” (see Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Ross, 1977, 1978) to evaluate and update the hypotheses we hold about ourselves, our peers, and our society. An obvious question therefore presents itself: How proficient are we, as laypeople, at assessing the empirical covariations presented by experiential evidence?
Before proceeding to discuss past or present research, we should note that everyday observation provides a great deal of relevant evidence; and it hints that the answer to the proficiency question is apt to be far from a simple one. On the one hand, both the generally adaptive nature of social behavior and the generally harmonious quality of social interaction leave little doubt that the participants in our culture possess many profound insights about behavioral causes and consequences.
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