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Volume 2 Issue 4 (November 1999), Pages 387-494

Children’s causal reasoning: Counterfactual thinking occurs for ‘negative’ outcomes only (pages 442-457)

Harris, German and Mills (Children’s use of counterfactual thinking in causal reasoning. Cognition, 61 (1996), 223–259), following Mackie, argue that children make explicit use of counterfactual thinking in arriving at causal judgments. They showed that children as young as 3, in explaining simple mishap events, made reference to courses of action that a protagonist had rejected, when that course of action would have prevented the observed outcome. It is hypothesized here that such counterfactual thinking might have been invoked by the ‘negative’ mishaps rather than as part of the causal reasoning process. Although the generation of counterfactuals in explanation was replicated using mishap outcomes such as those used by Harris et  al., counterfactual thinking was not evident in children’s explanations of ‘positive’ outcomes. These results undermine the view that a counterfactual thinking process, as indexed by reference to possible actions rejected by a protagonist, is necessary for causal reasoning. Alternative characterizations of the relationship between causals and counterfactuals are discussed.

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