The Plausible Impossible: Graded Notions of Impossibility Across Cultures

AbstractEvents that violate the laws of nature are, by definition, impossible, but recent research suggests that people view some violations as “more impossible” than others (Shtulman & Morgan, 2017). When evaluating the difficulty of magic spells, American adults are influenced by seemingly irrelevant considerations, judging, for instance, that it would be more difficult to levitate a bowling ball than a basketball even though weight should no longer be a consideration if contact is no longer necessary for support. Here, we explore these effects in a non-Western context—China—where magical events are represented differently in fiction and reasoning styles are often more holistic than analytic. Across several studies, Chinese adults showed the same tendency as American adults to honor implicit causal constraints when evaluating the plausibility of magical events. These findings suggest that graded notions of impossibility are shared across cultures, possibly because they are a byproduct of causal knowledge.

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