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.
This echos something I was just reading about Grice's Cooperative Principle. Loosely, this says that communication is more effective and economic when we expect communications to be relevant to the context. If an unexpected utterance occurs in a conversation we are able to imply relevance if the speaker is cooperating in the dialogue purpose, eg,ReplyDelete
A: Is Mary coming today?
B: Mary's dog is sick.
The information about the sick dog is apparently irrelevant unless if follows the thread, in which this implies that Mary won't be coming because her dog is sick and she must care for it.
In a similar way, assuming that socially transgressive acts are impossible will economize not only communication with others but also private thought.
A: Is Joan coming toda?
B: Joan has no clothes.
By implication, it would be impossible for Joan to come naked (or perhaps, even badly dressed.) This is physically possible but we should not waste mental energy thinking about it.
When this strategy is habituated, it becomes invisible. Socially transgressive and impossible are represented identically.