Children's counterfactual inferences about long and short causal chains

Tim P. German, Shaun Nichols

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Scopus citations


Recent findings on counterfactual reasoning in children have led to the claim that children's developing capacities in the domain of 'theory of mind' might reflect the emergence of the ability to engage in counterfactual thinking over the preschool period (e.g. Riggs, Peterson, Robinson & Mitchell, 1998). In the study reported here, groups of 3- and 4-year old children were presented with stories describing causal chains of several events, and asked counterfactual thinking tasks involving changes to different points in the chain. The ability to draw successful counterfactual inferences depended strongly on the inferential length of the problem, and the age of the children; while 3-year-olds performed above chance on short inference counterfactuals, they performed below chance on problems involving longer inference chains. Four-year-old children were above chance on all problems. Moreover, it was found that while success on longer chain inference problems was significantly correlated with the ability to pass tests of standard false belief, there was no such relationship for short inference problems, which were significantly easier than false belief problems. These results are discussed in terms of the developmental relationships between causal knowledge, counterfactual thinking and calculating the contents of mental states.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)514-523
Number of pages10
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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