Counterfactual Plausibility and Comparative Similarity

Cogn Sci. 2017 May:41 Suppl 5:1216-1228. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12451. Epub 2016 Nov 7.


Counterfactual thinking involves imagining hypothetical alternatives to reality. Philosopher David Lewis (1973, 1979) argued that people estimate the subjective plausibility that a counterfactual event might have occurred by comparing an imagined possible world in which the counterfactual statement is true against the current, actual world in which the counterfactual statement is false. Accordingly, counterfactuals considered to be true in possible worlds comparatively more similar to ours are judged as more plausible than counterfactuals deemed true in possible worlds comparatively less similar. Although Lewis did not originally develop his notion of comparative similarity to be investigated as a psychological construct, this study builds upon his idea to empirically investigate comparative similarity as a possible psychological strategy for evaluating the perceived plausibility of counterfactual events. More specifically, we evaluate judgments of comparative similarity between episodic memories and episodic counterfactual events as a factor influencing people's judgments of plausibility in counterfactual simulations, and we also compare it against other factors thought to influence judgments of counterfactual plausibility, such as ease of simulation and prior simulation. Our results suggest that the greater the perceived similarity between the original memory and the episodic counterfactual event, the greater the perceived plausibility that the counterfactual event might have occurred. While similarity between actual and counterfactual events, ease of imagining, and prior simulation of the counterfactual event were all significantly related to counterfactual plausibility, comparative similarity best captured the variance in ratings of counterfactual plausibility. Implications for existing theories on the determinants of counterfactual plausibility are discussed.

Keywords: Autobiographical; Counterfactual; Episodic; Plausibility; Similarity; Simulation.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology
  • Judgment / physiology*
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Young Adult