How do people make causal judgments about physical events? We introduce the counterfactual simulation model (CSM) which predicts causal judgments in physical settings by comparing what actually happened with what would have happened in relevant counterfactual situations. The CSM postulates different aspects of causation that capture the extent to which a cause made a difference to whether and how the outcome occurred, and whether the cause was sufficient and robust. We test the CSM in several experiments in which participants make causal judgments about dynamic collision events. A preliminary study establishes a very close quantitative mapping between causal and counterfactual judgments. Experiment 1 demonstrates that counterfactuals are necessary for explaining causal judgments. Participants’ judgments differed dramatically between pairs of situations in which what actually happened was identical, but where what would have happened differed. Experiment 2 features multiple candidate causes and shows that participants’ judgments are sensitive to different aspects of causation. The CSM provides a better fit to participants’ judgments than a heuristic model which uses features based on what actually happened. We discuss how the CSM can be used to model the semantics of different causal verbs, how it captures related concepts such as physical support, and how its predictions extend beyond the physical domain.
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