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Almost Thinking Counterfactually: Children’s Understanding of Close Counterfactuals


  • This research was supported in part by a grant from the Experimental Psychology Society to the first author. We thank Jennifer Doran, Amy Williamson, and Sarah Gorniak for their help with data collection and Kevin Riggs for comments on a draft of this manuscript.

concerning this article should be addressed to Sarah R. Beck, School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, United Kingdom. Electronic mail may be sent to


Saying something “almost happened” indicates that one is considering a close counterfactual world. Previous evidence suggested that children start to consider these close counterfactuals at around 2 years of age (P. L. Harris, 1997), substantially earlier than they pass other tests of counterfactual thinking. However, this success appears to result from false positives. In Experiment 1 (N = 41), 3- and 4-year-olds could identify a character who almost completed an action when the comparison did not complete it. However, in Experiments 1 and 2 (N = 98), children performed poorly when the comparison character completed the action. In Experiment 3 (N = 28), 5- and 6-year-olds consistently passed the task, indicating that they made appropriate counterfactual interpretations of the “almost” statements. This understanding of close counterfactuals proved more difficult than standard counterfactuals.