Volume 17, Issue 65 (2024)                   LCQ 2024, 17(65): 135-161 | Back to browse issues page

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Zanjanbar A H. The Educational Function of "Counterfactual Thinking" in Four Children's Storybooks: A Cognitive Narrative Approach. LCQ 2024; 17 (65) :135-161
URL: http://lcq.modares.ac.ir/article-29-69744-en.html
Children ̓s and Young Adult Literature, Payame Noor University, Tehran, Iran. , mosafer_e_barfi@yahoo.com
Abstract:   (756 Views)
Cognitive narratology examines the factors that elicit and interpret a text. One such interpretive structure is counterfactual thinking. When a story character’s action leads to either a pleasant or unpleasant consequence, the story’s moral message is extracted by comparing the existing reality with a counterfactual scenario. In other words, the reader automatically envisions a counterfactual scenario that could have occurred instead of the current reality, thereby preventing the occurrence of the existing desirable or undesirable event. This research was conducted using a descriptive-analytical method and a case study of four storybooks in age groups “A” and “B”. These books are “Uncle Wolf” from the collection of Italian Fables Hand of the Skeleton (Calvino, 2022), “Mrs. Pumpkin” (Sarmashghi, 2015), “The Ice that Fell in Love with the Sun” (Movzouni, 2019), and “The Bell-Footed Goat” (Shamlou, 2019). These stories were purposefully selected due to their alignment with different types of counterfactual thinking. The aim of this paper is to determine how the educational function of the counterfactual thinking template operates in stories, using a cognitive narratology approach. This template is categorized into two directions: “upward” and “downward”, two structures: “additive” and “subtractive”, and three criteria: “self-reference”, “other-reference”, and “non-reference”. By categorizing the stories based on the types of counterfactual thinking, this study demonstrates that the upward direction correlates with a negative approach and didactic-deterrent literature, while the downward direction correlates with a positive approach and didactic-incentive literature.
Extended Abstract
Cognitive narratology examines the factors that elicit and interpret a text. One such interpretive structure is counterfactual thinking. Humans evaluate events and occurrences not only based on what transpired, but also contemplate how those events could have unfolded differently. In cognitive psychology, "the tendency to construct a non-real aspect for realities is called counterfactual thinking" (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). Counterfactual thinking activates automatically, comparing the existing scenario with a possible alternative and making judgments between them. This type of thinking is divided into two directions based on orientation: “upward” and “downward”. Upward counterfactual thinking is a process where the individual compares the real situation with a more desirable counterfactual situation that could have occurred but did not, leading to dissatisfaction with the current situation and regret over the lost opportunity (Baron et al., 2009: 92). Conversely, downward counterfactual thinking imagines a scenario that, if it had transpired, would have led to worse consequences than the current situation. Based on this thinking, the individual feels satisfied with the current situation or grateful that a worse outcome did not occur.
Counterfactual thinking also manifests structurally in two ways: additive and subtractive. The additive structure recreates realities by introducing a new element to the situation. For instance, a person might imagine that if their father had undergone heart surgery, they wouldn’t have passed away. In other words, the condition for the non-occurrence of the current event was the execution of an action in the past. The subtractive structure attempts to create a different reality by eliminating elements from the situation. For example, a person might imagine that if they had not transferred the house to their son’s name, they would not now be spending the rest of their life in a nursing home.

Counterfactual thinking has three criteria of reference. An individual who constructs a counterfactual scenario can build the constructed scenario from the existing one by adding or removing an element in themselves (self-reference), in others (other-reference), or in the event itself (non-referential). For example, “If I hadn’t been speeding, I wouldn’t have hit this pedestrian” (self-referential); “If this pedestrian had used the footbridge, he wouldn’t have collided with my car” (other-referential); “If the road hadn’t been slippery, I could have controlled my car” (non-referential).

The term "cognitive narratology" was first introduced by John in the article "Windows of Focalization: Deconstructing and Reconstructing a Narrative Concept" (1996); however, before him, researchers in the 1980s such as Jaus (1982), Tompkins (1980), Perry (1979), and Sternberg (1978) had paved the way for the emergence of this approach.
In the realm of Iranian children's and young adult literature, cognitive narrative research is limited to the articles "Representation of Cognitive Processes in the Story of Auntie Cockroach: Based on Discourse Analysis" (Zanjanbar and Zare, 2020) and "Cognitive Narratology of Humor in Children's Stories: A Schema-Based Approach" (Zanjanbar et al., 2021).

Objectives and Questions
This paper aims to investigate the role of the counterfactual thinking pattern in how the moral message of children's stories is represented. In this regard, by examining and comparing the mentioned stories, it seeks to answer three questions: 1. In these stories, how is the counterfactual thinking schema represented in terms of direction and structure? 2. What is the relationship between the structure of employing counterfactual thinking in the stories and their educational function? 3. In terms of employing the counterfactual thinking schema, what are the commonalities and distinctions among these stories?

Research Method
This research was conducted through a descriptive-analytical method. The case studies of this paper cover four storybooks in age groups "A" and "B": the story "Uncle Wolf" from the first volume of the Italian fables collection titled Hand of the Skeleton (Calvino, 2022), Mrs. Pumpkin (Sarmashghi, 2015), The Ice that Fell in Love with the Sun (Movzouni, 2019), and the folk tale The Bell-Footed Goat (Shamlou, 2019). These stories were purposefully selected due to their alignment with different types of counterfactual thinking.

Counterfactual thinking manages the reader's judgment by substituting a possible scenario. In children's stories, episodes based on counterfactual thinking are categorized into two "upward" and "downward" directions, two "additive" and "subtractive" structures, and three reference criteria of "self-reference", "other-reference", and "non-reference". Upward thinking is accompanied by a negative feeling and dissatisfaction with the occurred event. Therefore, episodes based on upward counterfactual thinking employ a deterrent teaching method and instill fear of adverse consequences. With a negative and alarmist view of outcomes, they dissuade the child from performing certain actions or behaviors. In contrast, since downward counterfactual thinking is accompanied by the reader's positive feeling and satisfaction with reality, episodes based on downward counterfactual thinking employ an encouraging and incentivizing method, guiding the child towards certain behaviors with a positive approach. While the case studies in this paper demonstrate a correlation between the direction of counterfactual thinking and the teaching method, they do not find a correlation between the additive or subtractive structure of counterfactual thinking and the presentation of educational outcomes. Furthermore, this research reveals that in terms of complexity in using the counterfactual thinking schema, stories fall into two categories: simple and composite. Simple stories are based on one type of counterfactual thinking and usually engage the reader only once at the end of the story. On the other hand, composite stories form different types of counterfactual thinking depending on various episodes. In this context, composite stories alternate between the “carrot and stick” approach in different episodes. In one episode, they use a deterrent teaching method (stick) to discourage negative actions, and in another episode, they encourage positive actions through an incentivizing method (carrot). In contrast, simple stories employ only one of the two deterrent or incentivizing teaching methods.
Regarding the reference criterion, the child constructs the self-referential counterfactual scenario based on identifying with the beloved story character, the other-referential counterfactual scenario based on other characters, and the non-referential counterfactual scenario based on chance events.
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Article Type: Original Research | Subject: Child literature
Received: 2023/06/11 | Accepted: 2024/05/20 | Published: 2024/04/29

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