A plausible role of imagination in pretend play, counterfactual reasoning, and executive functions

Gill Althia Francis, Jenny Gibson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A notable observation is the similarities in the cognitive processes of pretend play (PP) and counterfactual reasoning (CFR) as both involve thinking about alternatives to reality. It is argued by Weisberg and Gopnik (Cogn. Sci., 37, 2013, 1368) that alternative thinking in PP and CFR is underpinned by an imaginary representational capacity but few studies have empirically investigated this link. We use a variable latent modelling approach to test a hypothetical model of the structural relationship of PP and CFR predicting that if PP and CFR are cognitively similar; they should have similar patterns of associations with Executive Functions (EFs). Data were collected on PP, CFR, EFs and Language from 189 children (M = 4.8 years, males = 101, females = 88). Confirmatory factor analyses showed that measures of PP and CFR loaded onto single latent constructs and were significantly correlated (r = .51, p = .001) with each other. Hierarchical multiple regression analyses revealed that EF accounted for unique significant variance in both PP (β = 21) and CFR (β = 22). The results of the structural equation modelling revealed
that the data were a good fit for the hypothetical model. We discuss the plausible role of a general underlying imaginative representational capacity to explain similarities in the cognitive mechanisms of different states of alternative thinking
like PP and CFR.
Original languageEnglish
Article number12650
Number of pages22
JournalBritish journal of psychology
Early online date3 Apr 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 3 Apr 2023

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