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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Cross-Cultural Sensitivity to Context when Reasoning about the Impossible


When judging the relative difficulty of impossible actions within the context of a magical world like that of Harry Potter, individuals honor real-world causal principles (e.g., assuming that heavier objects would be harder to levitate than lighter ones even though levitation itself is impossible; Shtulman & Morgan, 2017). We examined whether this effect persists when events are presented outside of this context. U.S. (Studies 1 and 2) and Chinese (Study 2) adults were asked to rate the relative difficulty of two impossible events that varied according to an irrelevant causal principle in one of three contexts: present science, future science, or magical. Though Chinese and U.S. adults honored irrelevant causal principles to a similar degree across the three contexts, Chinese adults’ confidence in their judgments varied by context. Additionally, individual differences in cognitive reflection (U.S.) and fantasy engagement (Chinese) related to judgments. Findings indicate that adults honor irrelevant causal constraints when reasoning about the impossible across multiple contexts, though subtle differences exist at both the cultural and individual level.

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