The Suppression of Inferences From Counterfactual Conditionals

Cognitive Science 44 (4):e12827 (2020)
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We examine two competing effects of beliefs on conditional inferences. The suppression effect occurs for conditionals, for example, “if she watered the plants they bloomed,” when beliefs about additional background conditions, for example, “if the sun shone they bloomed” decrease the frequency of inferences such as modus tollens (from “the plants did not bloom” to “therefore she did not water them”). In contrast, the counterfactual elevation effect occurs for counterfactual conditionals, for example, “if she had watered the plants they would have bloomed,” when beliefs about the known or presupposed facts, “she did not water the plants and they did not bloom” increase the frequency of inferences such as modus tollens. We report six experiments that show that beliefs about additional conditions take precedence over beliefs about presupposed facts for counterfactuals. The modus tollens inference is suppressed for counterfactuals that contain additional conditions (Experiments 1a and 1b). The denial of the antecedent inference (from “she did not water the plants” to “therefore they did not bloom”) is suppressed for counterfactuals that contain alternatives (Experiments 2a and 2b). We report a new “switched‐suppression” effect for conditionals with negated components, for example, “if she had not watered the plants they would not have bloomed”: modus tollens is suppressed by alternatives and denial of the antecedent by additional conditions, rather than vice versa (Experiments 3a and 3b). We discuss the implications of the results for alternative theories of conditional reasoning.



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Ruth Mary Josephine Byrne
Trinity College, Dublin