Espino and Byrne on counterfactuals, reality monitoring, and imagination
Orlando Espino and Ruth Byrne published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition on how people comprehend counterfactuals such as, “If it had been a good year, there would have been roses.” To understand such statements, people build models of reality and its alternatives. Espino and Byrne describe several studies that show how people maintain access to both real and imagined alternatives to reality. Their paper is available for download here and their abstract is here:
When people understand a counterfactual such as “if it had been a good year, there would have been roses,” they simulate the imagined alternative to reality, for example, “there were roses,” and the actual reality, as known or presupposed, for example, “there were no roses.” Seven experiments examined how people keep track of the epistemic status of these possibilities, by priming participants to anticipate a story would continue about one or the other. When participants anticipated the story would continue about how the current reality related to the past presupposed reality, they read a target description about reality more rapidly than one about the imagined alternative, indicating they had prioritized access to their mental representation of reality; but when they anticipated the story would continue about how the current reality related to the imagined alternative to reality, they read a target description about the imagined alternative and one about reality equally rapidly, indicating they had maintained access to both (Experiment 1), unlike for stories with no counterfactuals (Experiments 2 and 3). The tendency is not invariant: it appears immune to remote experience (Experiments 4 and 5), but it is influenced by immediate experience (Experiments 6 and 7). The results have implications for theories of reality monitoring, reasoning, and imagination.