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The effect of causal chain length on counterfactual conditional reasoning

Beck, Sarah R.; Riggs, Kevin J.; Gorniak, Sarah L.


Sarah R. Beck

Sarah L. Gorniak


We investigated German and Nichols' finding that 3-year-olds could answer counterfactual conditional questions about short causal chains of events, but not long. In four experiments (N =192), we compared 3- and 4-year-olds' performance on short and long causal chain questions, manipulating whether the child could draw on general knowledge to answer. We failed to replicate German and Nichols' result, finding instead that in two experiments (Experiments 1 and 3) there was no difference in performance on short and long causal chain questions and in two experiments (Experiments 2 and 4) children showed the opposite pattern: short causal chain questions were more difficult than long. These two unexpected patterns of results were replicated in a fifth study (N =97). Children with lower language ability found short causal chains more difficult than long. Performance by children with higher language ability was unaffected by the length of the causal chain they had to consider. We found no evidence that children showed precocious counterfactual thinking when asked about recent events in a causal chain and conclude that counterfactual thinking develops after 4 years of age.


Beck, S. R., Riggs, K. J., & Gorniak, S. L. (2010). The effect of causal chain length on counterfactual conditional reasoning. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 28(3), 505-521.

Journal Article Type Article
Online Publication Date Dec 23, 2010
Publication Date 2010-09
Journal British Journal of Developmental Psychology
Print ISSN 0261-510X
Publisher Wiley
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 28
Issue 3
Pages 505-521
Keywords Developmental Neuroscience; Developmental and Educational Psychology
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