Counterfactual Thinking

Topics: Psychology, Cognition, Developmental psychology Pages: 7 (1953 words) Published: November 8, 2014
Counterfactual Thinking

_When and how do children experience regret?_

_Major Research Essay: Psyc241_

_Student number: 4075274_

_School: University of Wollongong_

_Word count: 1506_

The experience of regret arguably relies on a multifaceted, counterfactual analysis of two previously possible outcomes. An important question to consider is at what age these counterfactual emotions develop, and what enables these responses to occur. Previous research proposes that regret emerges at around 4 years old, marginally earlier than more recent studies conducted by Guttentag and Ferrell, who suggest that the experience of regret occurs relatively late in child development. The results of these studies argue that understanding, rather than simply experiencing counterfactual emotions relies heavily on a child's ability to simultaneously conceive alternate realities, and that a recognition of differing outcomes is a necessary, rather than sufficient component of the development of regret. These findings accumulate and extend previous research, and demonstrate that the development of counterfactual thinking in children is positively correlated with a complex cognitive processing of two alternate realities.

The experience of regret and relief are counterfactual emotions based on a comparison of reality with a better, alternative situation. Counterfactual emotions are considered to perform important emotional regulatory functions, and require additional complex cognitive processing than more basic emotions such as anger, fear or happiness. They require us to consider 'dual possibilities' (Byrne, 2002) in which both outcomes were possible at some point in the past. The ability to experience emotions such as regret is believed to play an important role in decision-making following the emergence into adulthood. Significant differences however, exist between when children are thought to first experience regret. It is arguable that children's understanding of regret develops relatively late due to the complex nature of not only comprehending counterfactual thinking (Guttentag and Ferrell, 2004), which requires an identification and comparison of two equally possible, alternate actions. If children are unable to generate these comparisons, they are unable to experience the emotion of regret. Little research has been done on the cognitive processes behind the emergence of regret in young children, and thus many questions still exist as to why the experience of counterfactual thinking develops relatively late in childhood. Many inconsistencies exist in the theoretical understandings of regret, and subsequently further research is required in order to overcome these age-related discrepancies.

Counterfactual thinking refers to an ability to think "about what could have been had an alternative decision been made or had the outcome been different" (Roese, 1991). It is within the intriguing paradigm that the ongoing research into the experience of regret takes place. Recent findings have shed further light into the development of regret during the early years of childhood. Beck et al (2006) proposed the theoretical perspective that counterfactual emotions develop relatively late because it requires more complex cognitive processing to conceive two possible outcomes, as opposed to recognizing basic emotions of happiness and sadness. This perspective is widely agreed upon, however theories differ in the age at which the emotion of regret actually emerges. Daniel Weisberg (2001) located the emergence of regret at about 4 years, however Guttentag and Ferrell (2004) speculated that it was not until children are 6 or 7 years old that they are able to simultaneously comprehend counterfactual and actual situations. Further research however, has revealed that within the emergence of counterfactual thinking, is a distinction between experiencing and reasoning about regret. The latter involves a reflection on the reasoning behind the...
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