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Counterfactual Reasoning: Developing a Sense of “Nearest Possible World”


  • We would like to express our appreciation to the heads and children of the following kindergartens for their cooperation and valuable time participating in this project: Betriebskindergarten St. Johanns-Spital, Pfarrcaritaskindergarten Gallneukirchen, Vereinskindergarten Perg Haydnstraße, and Vereinskindergarten Perg Friedhofstraße. This research was financially supported by Austrian Science Fund project (I140-G15) “Counterfactual Reasoning in Children” as part of the ESF EUROCORES LogiCCC initiative and forms part of the doctoral dissertation of Eva Rafetseder in the Department of Psychology at the University of Salzburg.

concerning this article should be addressed to Eva Rafetseder, Department of Psychology, University of Salzburg, Hellbrunnerstraße 34, A-5020 Salzburg, Austria. Electronic mail may be sent to


This study investigated at what point in development 3- to 6-year-old children begin to demonstrate counterfactual reasoning by controlling for fortuitously correct answers that result from basic conditional reasoning. Basic conditional reasoning occurs when one applies typical regularities (such as “If ‘whenever’ it doesn’t rain the street is dry”) to counterfactual questions (such as “If it had not rained, would the street be wet or dry?”) without regard to actual events (e.g., if street cleaners had just been washing the street). In counterfactual reasoning, however, the conditional reasoning must be constrained by actual events (according to the “nearest possible world”). In situations when counterfactual reasoning and basic conditional reasoning would yield the same answers, even the youngest children gave mostly correct answers. However, tasks in which the 2 reasoning strategies resulted in different answers proved unusually difficult even for the older children.