Perceived similarity of imagined possible worlds affects judgments of counterfactual plausibility.
People frequently entertain counterfactual thoughts, or mental simulations about alternative ways the world could have been. But the perceived plausibility of those counterfactual thoughts varies widely. The current article interfaces research in the philosophy and semantics of counterfactual statements with the psychology of mental simulations, and it explores the role of perceived similarity in judgments of counterfactual plausibility. We report results from seven studies (N = 6405) jointly supporting three interconnected claims. First, the perceived plausibility of a counterfactual event is predicted by the perceived similarity between the possible world in which the imagined situation is thought to occur and the actual world. Second, when people attend to differences between imagined possible worlds and the actual world, they think of the imagined possible worlds as less similar to the actual world and tend to judge counterfactuals in such worlds as less plausible. Lastly, when people attend to what is identical between imagined possible worlds and the actual world, they think of the imagined possible worlds as more similar to the actual world and tend to judge counterfactuals in such worlds as more plausible. We discuss these results in light of philosophical, semantic, and psychological theories of counterfactual thinking.
De Brigard, F; Henne, P; Stanley, ML
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