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Poster C7

Episodic counterfactual plausibility is negatively associated with ease of simulation: behavioral and neural evidence

Poster Session C - Sunday, April 14, 2024, 5:00 – 7:00 pm EDT, Sheraton Hall ABC

Ricardo Morales-Torres1,2 (, Kaylee Miceli1,3, Shenyang Huang1,2, Felipe De Brigard1,2,3; 1Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, 2Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University, 3Department of Philosophy, Duke University

People often engage in episodic counterfactual thinking (ECT), or the act of imagining alternative ways past events could have occurred. These simulations can vary in their perceived plausibility, ranging from highly plausible (having a different breakfast) to highly implausible (winning the lottery). Classical psychological models, such as the simulation heuristic, suggest that the perceived plausibility of a counterfactual is determined by how easily it comes to mind. However, this heuristic has been mostly tested with fictional narratives and only scarcely with autobiographical events. In our research, we conducted two behavioral (1 and 3) and one fMRI (2) experiments to examine the simulation heuristic's predictions in the context of ECT and its potential neural basis. In all experiments, participants recalled various autobiographical memories. After a week, they generated counterfactual scenarios for these memories, then rated their perceived plausibility and ease of simulation. The results of Experiment 1 supported the simulation heuristic, showing that easier simulations are rated as more plausible. Experiment 2 revealed that implausible simulations, compared to plausible ones, elicited greater activation in the left prefrontal cortex, a pattern associated with increased cognitive control demands in memory retrieval. Experiment 3 showed that even when participants were tasked with generating implausible counterfactuals exclusively, they still exhibited the pattern predicted by the simulation heuristic. Collectively, our findings support the simulation heuristic in ECT (Exp. 1), its robustness (Exp. 3), and how this effect might be mediated by the generation of less plausible counterfactuals requiring more cognitive control over mnemonic processes (Exp. 2).

Topic Area: LONG-TERM MEMORY: Episodic


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