If the real world were irrelevant, so to speak: The role of propositional truth-value in counterfactual sentence comprehension

Cognition. 2012 Jan;122(1):102-9. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.09.001. Epub 2011 Oct 1.


Propositional truth-value can be a defining feature of a sentence's relevance to the unfolding discourse, and establishing propositional truth-value in context can be key to successful interpretation. In the current study, we investigate its role in the comprehension of counterfactual conditionals, which describe imaginary consequences of hypothetical events, and are thought to require keeping in mind both what is true and what is false. Pre-stored real-world knowledge may therefore intrude upon and delay counterfactual comprehension, which is predicted by some accounts of discourse comprehension, and has been observed during online comprehension. The impact of propositional truth-value may thus be delayed in counterfactual conditionals, as also claimed for sentences containing other types of logical operators (e.g., negation, scalar quantifiers). In an event-related potential (ERP) experiment, we investigated the impact of propositional truth-value when described consequences are both true and predictable given the counterfactual premise. False words elicited larger N400 ERPs than true words, in negated counterfactual sentences (e.g., "If N.A.S.A. had not developed its Apollo Project, the first country to land on the moon would have been Russia/America") and real-world sentences (e.g., "Because N.A.S.A. developed its Apollo Project, the first country to land on the moon was America/Russia") alike. These indistinguishable N400 effects of propositional truth-value, elicited by opposite word pairs, argue against disruptions by real-world knowledge during counterfactual comprehension, and suggest that incoming words are mapped onto the counterfactual context without any delay. Thus, provided a sufficiently constraining context, propositional truth-value rapidly impacts ongoing semantic processing, be the proposition factual or counterfactual.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Male
  • Mental Processes / physiology*
  • Young Adult