Comprehending counterfactuals

Ferguson, Heather Jane (2008) Comprehending counterfactuals. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Counterfactual reasoning, an understanding of events that are counter to reality, or false, is an essential ingredient of our everyday cognition. Counterfactual situations are frequently depicted through language, yet surprisingly little is known of how they are processed during reading or listening. This is remarkable given the social importance of understanding counterfactuals and the wealth of psychological research that has focused on the production of counterfactual statements. In this thesis, I present eight experiments that investigate how a counterfactual discourse can disrupt or facilitate
processing of some subsequent linguistic input and address related comprehension issues involving negation and theory of mind. The main findings suggest that a counterfactual scenario (e.g. ‘If cats were vegetarians’) leads the comprehender to rapidly update their processing model to incorporate a counterfactual continuation. However, a secondary process briefly interferes at the point of ambiguity resolution in cases where world knowledge has been violated (e.g. ‘Families could feed their cat a bowl of fish/ carrots’). The effects are compared across the different experimental paradigms used, including eye- tracking, event- related brain potentials and the visual world paradigm, which reveal distinct integration, neural and anticipatory processes. Finally, these findings are discussed in relation to existing research on counterfactuals and the processing relationships between counterfactuals, negation and theory of mind reasoning.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Discourse processing, counterfactuals, negation, theory of mind, eye- movements, event- related potentials, Visual- world paradigm
Subjects: R Medicine > RC Internal medicine > RC0321 Neuroscience. Biological psychiatry. Neuropsychiatry
P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Colleges/Schools: College of Science and Engineering > School of Psychology
Supervisor's Name: Sanford, Professor Anthony J
Date of Award: 2008
Depositing User: Dr Heather Jane Ferguson
Unique ID: glathesis:2008-54
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 08 Jul 2008
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:15

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