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Counterfactual Thinking Essay

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 emotion, i.e. _why_ does the child feel bad that he/she picked box ‘A’ containing nothing, when he/she could have picked box ‘B’, containing the chocolate. Experiencing regret however, involves a comparison of reality with a better, alternative outcome. Given that it is a difficult task to simultaneously comprehend two equally plausible realities, it must be even more difficult to understanding the reasoning behind _why_ this feels bad. Interestingly, although Guttentag and Ferrell (2004) located the experience of regret early in childhood, they argued that it wasn’t until later in life – around 7 years old – that a child was able to demonstrate _why_ an alternative reality might affect the emotional reaction to the actual outcome. Guttentag and Ferrell (2004) suggested that children less than 5 or 6 years old cannot generate a comparison between a real and counterfactual reality. According to this perspective, the comparison between two previously possible outcomes is critical. In 2009, Beck and Crilly adapted this theory, and hypothesized that “an inability to compare the two worlds limits children’s thinking about regret.” (Beck, & Crilly 2009).

Beck, Robinson, Carroll and Apperly (2006) proposed a similar perspective, arguing that it wasn’t until children were 5 or 6 years old that counterfactual and actual events were two equally plausible events. Studies conducted following this proposal revealed corresponding results. Children between the ages of 3 and 6 were asked an open and a closed question regarding the pathway chosen by a toy mouse. Children aged 3 found it difficult to correctly answer the question “what if he had gone the other way, where would he be?” as opposed to the simpler “could he have gone anywhere else?” Comparatively, children aged 6 and older performed significantly better, with 85% answering the open question correctly. Beck et al reasoned that regret could not be felt if the child had no understanding of the possibility of a counterfactual reality replacing the actual reality. In 2009, Beck and Crilly replicated these studies, but alternatively used an open question and a regret question to measure children’s ability to comprehend regret.

The results indicated that, contrary to Beck et al, it is in fact not sufficient to simply distinguish two counterfactual possibilities in order for children to recognize regret. The study gave more weight to Guttentag and Ferrell’s 2004 claim that the comparison of two alternate realities is critical in the development of regret. Beck and Crilly (2009) went on to suggest that perhaps understanding two counterfactual realities was a necessary rather than sufficient developmental goal in the cognitive processing of regret. In 2003, German and Nichols proposed that the experience of counterfactual thinking could occur as early as 4 years of age. In their study, a group of 3 year olds were given stories that involved two possible outcomes. When given the negative alternative, the children were asked whether the character in the story would feel happy or sad. German and Nichols reported that children answered more than two thirds of the simple counterfactual questions correctly.

This data was used to theorize that children as young as 3 could comprehend basic counterfactual realities, and thus indicated the early emergence of regret. Although much discrepancy exists as the to the exact age at which regret begins to emerge, the view that counterfactual thinking develops much earlier than previously thought has become widely accepted amongst both cognitive and developmental psychologists. However, evidence exists that contradicts this perspective. Beck et al argue that the studies used by German and Nichols contain a number of false positives.

Further research has suggested that the supposed counterfactual thinking demonstrated in the 3 year olds tested, could simply be use of the child’s general knowledge, and that the questions used were too simple to reliably indicate an experience of regret. Questions used in the experiment by German and Nichols arguably lead to answers that could be answered using the child’s general knowledge, such as recognizing that squashed flowers make people unhappy, and ‘unsquashed’ flowers make people happy (Beck, Robison, Carroll, & Apperly 2006). Where German and Nichols may have revealed an emergence of counterfactual thinking; may simply have been the child’s expression of past experience.

The most widely agreed upon theory of regret in childhood appears to be ability to not only distinguish two previously possible realities, but to also compare them in order to come to an emotional understanding. Theorists including Guttentag and Ferrell (2004), and Beck and Crilly (2009) argue that a distinction must be made between simply experiencing a counterfactual emotion, and understanding _why_ someone may feel unhappy when comparing the actual reality with a counterfactual world. This theory is based on the premise that counterfactual thinking is a complex cognitive process, requiring a multifaceted understanding of two dual possibilities.

Research on counterfactual thinking in childhood also suggests children may experience regret as early as 4 years old, however this view has generated much criticism and requires further research in order to rule out experimental limitations, such as small research groups and over generalized questions. Future research may focus on overcoming these limitations in order to generate reliable data. Compiling the findings from these and future studies will enable researchers to form a much clearer of picture of exactly when children not only experience, but also understand the emotion of regret, and what cognitive processes underpin this development. In conclusion, research examining children’s regret has focused on the criticality of the moment children begin to comprehend two dual realities, and feel remorse after choosing one outcome over another. Current studies lend weight to the complex nature of the role of cognition in emotional experiences, and this data, taken in conjunction with earlier studies, suggests a number of age-related stepping stones are implicated in the development of counterfactual thinking.


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