As humans, we think not only about what is, but also what could be. These representations of alternative possibilities support many important cognitive functions, such as predicting others’ future actions, assigning responsibility for past events, and making moral judgments. We perform many of these tasks quickly and effortlessly, which suggests access to an implicit, default assumption about what is possible. What are the default features of the possibilities that we consider? Remarkably, we find a default bias toward representing immoral or irrational actions as being impossible. Although this bias is diminished upon deliberative reflection, it is the default judgments that appear to support higher-level cognition.Abstract
The capacity for representing and reasoning over sets of possibilities, or modal cognition, supports diverse kinds of high-level judgments: causal reasoning, moral judgment, language comprehension, and more. Prior research on modal cognition asks how humans explicitly and deliberatively reason about what is possible but has not investigated whether or how people have a default, implicit representation of which events are possible. We present three studies that characterize the role of implicit representations of possibility in cognition. Collectively, these studies differentiate explicit reasoning about possibilities from default implicit representations, demonstrate that human adults often default to treating immoral and irrational events as impossible, and provide a case study of high-level cognitive judgments relying on default implicit representations of possibility rather than explicit deliberation.