Book Chapter

Counterfactual and Other Forms of Conditional Reasoning: Children Lost in the Nearest Possible World



Perner J & Rafetseder E (2011) Counterfactual and Other Forms of Conditional Reasoning: Children Lost in the Nearest Possible World. In: Hoerl C, McCormack T & Beck S (eds.) Understanding Counterfactuals, Understanding Causation: Issues in Philosophy and Psychology. Consciousness and Self-Consciousness Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 90-109.

Our naïve, driving question is: when do children become capable of counterfactual reasoning? Existing data do not provide a clear answer to our question. To shed some new light on this issue we analyse different kinds of conditionals and ask what kind of reasoning is required to understand them. Although we develop a systematic classification of several different kinds of conditionals and types of reasoning, in the end we focus on counterfactual reasoning required by subjunctives about the past and basic conditional reasoning for (timeless) conditionals typically expressed in the present to capture recurring regularities. In both cases assumptions counter to fact can occur (I can simply think of some event that I know is not going on). The developmental literature has focused on children’s difficulty in reasoning with assumptions or thoughts that run counter to known facts which persists to about 4 or 5 years of age. But this ability does not differentiate between basic conditional reasoning with imagined (counterfactual) events or states of affairs and counterfactual reasoning. In our analysis, when background assumptions are needed, basic conditional reasoning draws on plausible assumptions while counterfactual reasoning has to take such assumptions from the actual sequence of events (nearest possible world) to which it is supposed to be a counterfactual. When controlling for this factor children seem oblivious to this requirement until the age of 10 or beyond. These age limits may tie in well (once necessary controls have been implemented) with children’s ability to experience counterfactual emotions like regret and relief.

Title of seriesConsciousness and Self-Consciousness Series
Publication date31/12/2011
PublisherOxford University Press
Publisher URL
Place of publicationOxford

People (1)


Dr Eva Rafetseder

Dr Eva Rafetseder

Senior Lecturer, Psychology