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Open Access Publications from the University of California

"If only Santa had one more present": Exploring the development of near-miss counterfactual reasoning


Near-misses sting: As adults, we intuitively understand that someone who just missed a desirable outcome (near-miss) feels worse than someone who missed by a far margin (far-miss). What cognitive capacities support these intuitions, and how do they emerge in early childhood? We presented adults (n=42) and six- to eight-year-olds (n=91; pre-registered) with various near-miss scenarios. We found that (1) adults generally infer that a near-miss character would feel worse than a far-miss character, (2) yet their inferences vary depending on the context, and (3) children show a strikingly different pattern from adults, robustly choosing the far-miss character as feeling worse. The tendency to judge the near-miss character as feeling worse increased with age, but even 8-year-olds were still below chance. These patterns raise the possibility that young children start with a distance-based bias that gradually gets replaced by adult-like inferences that involve counterfactual reasoning.

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