An investigation into the online processing of counterfactual and indicative conditionals Academic Article uri icon


  • The ability to represent conditional information is central to human cognition. In two self-paced reading experiments we investigated how readers process counterfactual conditionals (e.g., If Darren had been athletic, he could probably have played on the rugby team) and indicative conditionals (e.g., If Darren is athletic, he probably plays on the rugby team). In Experiment 1 we focused on how readers process counterfactual conditional sentences. We found that processing of the antecedent of counterfactual conditionals was rapidly constrained by prior context (i.e., knowing whether Darren was or was not athletic). A reading-time penalty was observed for the critical region of text comprising the last word of the antecedent and the first word of the consequent when the information in the antecedent did not fit with prior context. In Experiment 2 we contrasted counterfactual conditionals with indicative conditionals. For counterfactual conditionals we found the same effect on the critical region as we found in Experiment 1. In contrast, however, we found no evidence that processing of the antecedent of indicative conditionals was constrained by prior context. For indicative conditionals (but not for counterfactual conditionals), the results we report are consistent with the suppositional account of conditionals. We propose that current theories of conditionals need to be able to account for online processing differences between indicative and counterfactual conditionals.

publication date

  • November 2009