How do people make causal judgments? What role, if any, does counterfactual simulation play? Counterfactual theories of causal judgments predict that people compare what actually happened with what would have happened if the candidate cause had been absent. Process theories predict that people focus only on what actually happened, to assess the mechanism linking candidate cause and outcome. We tracked participants’ eye movements while they judged whether one billiard ball caused another one to go through a gate or prevented it from going through. Both participants’ looking patterns and their judgments demonstrated that counterfactual simulation played a critical role. Participants simulated where the target ball would have gone if the candidate cause had been removed from the scene. The more certain participants were that the outcome would have been different, the stronger the causal judgments. These results provide the first direct evidence for spontaneous counterfactual simulation in an important domain of high-level cognition.
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