Impossible worlds and how people simulate them: new M&C paper by Byrne

Ruth Byrne published a new paper in Memory & Cognition that describes how people think of hypothetical impossibilities, such as: “if people were made of steel, they would not bruise easily”. Reasoners treat the conditional as true, even though the if-clause describes an impossibility. Her analysis reveals that people construct imagined scenarios systematically, and that they keep the imagined scenario separate from their simulations of factual situations.

Here’s the abstract of her paper:

People can think about hypothetical impossibilities and a curious observation is that some impossible conditionals seem true and others do not. Four experiments test the proposal that people think about impossibilities just as they do possibilities, by attempting to construct a consistent simulation of the impossible conjecture with its suggested outcome, informed by their knowledge of the real world. The results show that participants judge some impossible conditionals true with one outcome, for example, “if people were made of steel, they would not bruise easily” and false with the opposite outcome, “if people were made of steel they would bruise easily”, and others false with either outcome, for example, “if houses were made of spaghetti, their engines would (not) be noisy”. However, they can sometimes judge impossible conditionals true with either outcome, for example, “if Plato were identical to Socrates, he would (not) have a small nose”, or “if sheep and wolves were alike, they would (not) eat grass”. The results were observed for judgments about what could be true (Experiments 1 and 4), judgments of degrees of truth (Experiment 2), and judgments of what is true (Experiment 3). The results rule out the idea that people evaluate the truth of a hypothetical impossibility by relying on cognitive processes that compare the probability of each conditional to its counterpart with the opposite outcome.

And it can be viewed online or downloaded here.

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