Counterfactual reasoning: From childhood to adulthood



Rafetseder E, Schwitalla M & Perner J (2013) Counterfactual reasoning: From childhood to adulthood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 114 (3), pp. 389-404.

The objective of this study was to describe the developmental progression of counterfactual reasoning from childhood to adulthood. In contrast to the traditional view, it was recently reported by Rafetseder and colleagues that even a majority of 6-year-old children do not engage in counterfactual reasoning when asked counterfactual questions (Child Development,2010, Vol. 81, pp. 376–389). By continuing to use the same method, the main result of the current Study 1 was that performance of the 9- to 11-year-olds was comparable to that of the 6-year-olds, whereas the 12- to 14-year-olds approximated adult performance. Study 2, using an intuitively simpler task based on Harris and colleagues (Cognition,1996, Vol. 61, pp. 233–259), resulted in a similar conclusion, specifically that the ability to apply counterfactual reasoning is not fully developed in all children before 12years of age. We conclude that children who failed our tasks seem to lack an understanding of what needs to be changed (events that are causally dependent on the counterfactual assumption) and what needs to be left unchanged and so needs to be kept as it actually happened. Alternative explanations, particularly executive functioning, are discussed in detail.

Counterfactual reasoning; Basic conditional reasoning; Executive functioning; Childhood; Adulthood; Nearest possible world constraint

Journal of Experimental Child Psychology: Volume 114, Issue 3

Publication date31/03/2013

People (1)


Dr Eva Rafetseder

Dr Eva Rafetseder

Senior Lecturer, Psychology