Orenes et al. on eyetracking causal and counterfactual negation

Isabel Orenes, Orlando Espino, and Ruth Byrne published a new paper in QJEP on how people comprehend affirmative and negative counterfactuals and causal assertions. Their results corroborate the view that people understand counterfactuals by thinking about two iconic possibilities, and they suggest that people represent negations symbolically.

The abstract of their paper is available here:

Two eye-tracking experiments compared affirmative and negative counterfactuals, “if she had (not) arrived early, she would (not) have bought roses” and affirmative and negative causal assertions, “Because she arrived (did not arrive) early, she bought (did not buy) roses”. When participants heard a counterfactual, they looked on screen at words corresponding to its conjecture (“roses”), and its presupposed facts (“no roses”), whereas for a causal assertion, they looked only at words corresponding to the facts. For counterfactuals, they looked at the conjecture first, and later the presupposed facts, and at the latter more than the former. The effect was more pronounced for negative counterfactuals than affirmative ones because the negative counterfactual’s presupposed facts identify a specific item (“she bought roses”), whereas the affirmative counterfactual’s presupposed facts do not (“she did not buy roses”). Hence, when participants were given a binary context, “she did not know whether to buy roses or carnations”, they looked primarily at the presupposed facts for both sorts of counterfactuals. We discuss the implications for theories of negation, the dual meaning of counterfactuals, and their relation to causal assertions.

And their paper can be downloaded here.

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