Reasoning with counterintuitive and arbitrary conditionals

In recent years, arbitrary conditionals such as, “If a person goes shopping, then that person gets pimples”, have challenged many existing accounts of conditional reasoning. Estefania Gazzo Castañeda and Markus Knauff recently published new data shedding light on these kinds of conditionals: in a paper out in Memory & Cognition, they show that these conditionals are subject to “specificity” effects, that is, people treat them as more acceptable when they describe some specific situation instead of a generality. The abstract of the paper is here:

When people have prior knowledge about an inference, they accept conclusions from specific conditionals (e.g., “If Jack does sports, then Jack loses weight”) more strongly than for unspecific conditionals (e.g., “If a person does sports, then the person loses weight”). But can specific phrasings also elevate the acceptance of conclusions from unbelievable conditionals? In Experiment 1, we varied the specificity of counterintuitive conditionals, which described the opposite of what is expected according to everyday experiences (“If Lena/a person studies hard, then Lena/the person will not do well on the test”). In Experiment 2, we varied the specificity of arbitrary conditionals, which had no obvious link between antecedent and consequent (“If Mary/a person goes shopping, then Mary/ the person gets pimples”). All conditionals were embedded in MP and AC inferences. Participants were instructed to reason as in daily life and to evaluate the conclusions on a 7-point Likert scale. Our results showed a specificity effect in both experiments: participants gave higher acceptance ratings for specific than for unspecific conditionals.

and it can be downloaded here.

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