The Plausible Impossible: Chinese Adults Hold Graded Notions of Impossibility

Journal of Cognition and Culture 21 (1-2):76-93 (2021)
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Abstract

Events that violate the laws of nature are, by definition, impossible, but recent research suggests that people view some violations as “more impossible” than others. When evaluating the difficulty of magic spells, American adults are influenced by causal considerations that should be irrelevant given the spell’s primary causal violation, judging, for instance, that it would be more difficult to levitate a bowling ball than a basketball even though weight should no longer be a consideration if contact is no longer necessary for support. In the present study, we sought to test the generalizability of these effects in a non-Western context – China – where magical events are represented differently in popular fiction and where reasoning styles are often more holistic than analytic. Across several studies, Chinese adults showed the same tendency as American adults to honor implicit causal constraints when evaluating the plausibility of magical events. These findings suggest that graded notions of impossibility are shared across cultures, possibly because they are a byproduct of causal knowledge.

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