Inference and explanation in counterfactual reasoning

Lance J. Rips*, Brian J. Edwards

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


This article reports results from two studies of how people answer counterfactual questions about simple machines. Participants learned about devices that have a specific configuration of components, and they answered questions of the form "If component X had not operated [failed], would component Y have operated?" The data from these studies indicate that participants were sensitive to the way in which the antecedent state is described-whether component X "had not operated" or "had failed." Answers also depended on whether the device is deterministic or probabilistic-whether X's causal parents "always" or only "usually" cause X to operate. Participants' explanations of their answers often invoked non-operation of causally prior components or unreliability of prior connections. They less often mentioned independence from these causal elements.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1107-1135
Number of pages29
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 2013


  • Bayes nets
  • Counterfactual conditionals
  • Explanation
  • Reasoning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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