ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2017, Vol. 25 ›› Issue (5): 769-777.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2017.00769

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Counterfactuals and the underlying processing mechanism

DAI Haoyun; XU Xiaodong   

  1. (School of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing 210097, China)
  • Received:2016-06-20 Online:2017-05-15 Published:2017-05-15
  • Contact: XU Xiaodong, E-mail:


Counterfactuals are contrary-to-fact statements which are widely used in daily life to convey thoughts about what might have been. Previous studies have revealed that, different from fact-based processing, counterfactual processing triggers a dual mental representation/space (suppositional event vs. presupposed fact) and therefore engages more cognitive resources. This paper makes a detailed discussion on the processing mechanism underlying counterfactuals from the perspective of syntactic and contextual constraints. On the one hand, it is revealed that contextual relevance would influence the online construction and resolution of dual representation. The validity of real-world interference stands or falls with the provision of a sufficiently constraining context. Syntactically, on the other hand, the lack of dedicated counterfactual markers in Chinese makes its native speakers more inclined to rely on contextual cues and pragmatic implications to express and understand counterfactuality. Yet it remains unsolved whether the processing mechanism underlying Chinese counterfactuals would differentiate from that which underlies Indo-European counterfactuals due to the difference in syntactic structures. To achieve a comprehensive understanding about the cognitive neural mechanism of counterfactuals, a wider variety of languages should be explored, and the individual difference in counterfactual processing deserves more attention. Further attempts should also be made to investigate how the dual representation of counterfactuals unfolds in time and influences successive information processing.

Key words: counterfactuals, processing mechanism, dual representation, counterfactual markers, contextual constraints