Children’s Understanding of Counterfactual Alternatives


This study examines how children integrate information about counterfactual alternatives in making judgments. Previous research in adults had shown that they make judgments on the basis of comparisons between factual events and counterfactual alternatives. We suggest that children adopt a summative strategy instead, where they focus on the presented outcomes, both real and counterfactual, and base their judgments on the overall affective quality of these outcomes. Results from a single experiment comparing adults’ and children’s responses to a counterfactual judgment task show that children do tend to use a summative strategy as opposed to the comparative strategy adopted by adults. These results were further supported by participants’ justifications of their judgments, which were alternative focused for the adults, but outcome focused for the children. The results are discussed in relation to complexity-based theories of the development of human reasoning.

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