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On the Acquisition of Counterfactual Reasoning and Ensuing Abilities

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PI: Dr. Eva Rafetseder, Department of Psychology, University of Stirling

 

People often reflect on how things might have turned out differently if they had acted differently in the past. Creating such alternatives to known facts has been defined as counterfactual reasoning (CFR). CFR (assuming that something were the case) has logically been differentiated from hypothetical reasoning (assuming that something is the case) with the closest possible world constraint. For example, we might assume counterfactually that if it hadn’t rained Marie would be dry. In order to do so we retain as many features of the actual world as possible. We only change what is stipulated in the if-antecedent of the counterfactual assumption together with logical and causal consequences of that assumption (closest possible world constraint). Recent research has shown that the understanding of this constraint develops from around 6 years onwards.

The fellowship aims at investigating how children younger than 6 years understand a counterfactual question; they are using what has been dubbed as basic conditional reasoning (BCR) Recently, a theory about the difference between CFR and BCR has been developed. One main aim will be to test this theory. Furthermore it is planned to look into the difference between CFR and pretend play. A number of researchers have linked counterfactual reasoning to pretend play. The basic idea is that, like for counterfactual reasoning, to engage in pretend play one has to represent the world as it is not. This, however, raises an important question why children are able to engage in pretend play when they still find it difficult to answer counterfactual questions until they are 6 years or older (when answers are controlled for BCR).