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Poking Counterfactual Holes in Covering Laws: Cognitive Styles and Historical Reasoning


  • Tetlock, Philip E.
  • Lebow, Richard Ned


We report a series of studies of historical reasoning among professional observers of world politics. The correlational studies demonstrate that experts with strong theoretical commitments to a covering law and cognitive-stylistic preferences for explanatory closure are more likely to reject close-call Counterfactual that imply that “already explained†historical outcomes could easily have taken radically different forms. The experimental studies suggest that counterfactual reasoning is not totally theory-driven: Many experts are capable of surprising themselves when encouraged to imagine the implications of particular what-if scenarios. Yet, there is a downside to openness to historical contingency. The more effort experts allocate to exploring counterfactual worlds, the greater is the risk that they will assign too much subjective probability to too many scenarios. We close by defining good judgment as a reflective-equilibrium process of balancing the conflicting causal intuitions primed by complementary factual and counterfactual posings of historical questions.

Suggested Citation

  • Tetlock, Philip E. & Lebow, Richard Ned, 2001. "Poking Counterfactual Holes in Covering Laws: Cognitive Styles and Historical Reasoning," American Political Science Review, Cambridge University Press, vol. 95(4), pages 829-843, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:apsrev:v:95:y:2001:i:04:p:829-843_40

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    Cited by:

    1. Bonaccorsi, Andrea & Apreda, Riccardo & Fantoni, Gualtiero, 2020. "Expert biases in technology foresight. Why they are a problem and how to mitigate them," Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Elsevier, vol. 151(C).
    2. Ron Sun & Isaac Naveh, 2007. "Social institution, cognition, and survival: a cognitive–social simulation," Mind & Society: Cognitive Studies in Economics and Social Sciences, Springer;Fondazione Rosselli, vol. 6(2), pages 115-142, November.
    3. David R. Mandel & Christopher W. Karvetski & Mandeep K. Dhami, 2018. "Boosting intelligence analysts’ judgment accuracy: What works, what fails?," Judgment and Decision Making, Society for Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 13(6), pages 607-621, November.
    4. Saras Sarasvathy & K. Kumar & Jeffrey G. York & Suresh Bhagavatula, 2014. "An Effectual Approach to International Entrepreneurship: Overlaps, Challenges, and Provocative Possibilities," Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, , vol. 38(1), pages 71-93, January.
    5. Fessel, Florian & Epstude, Kai & Roese, Neal J., 2009. "Hindsight bias redefined: It's about time," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 110(1), pages 56-64, September.

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