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Functional Theory Of Counterfactual Thinking

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The functional theory of counterfactual thinking relies heavily on the functions of “what if” and “if only”, components of the emotion of regret. It has been demonstrated that these counterfactual thoughts serve important adaptive functions, as regret is assumed to facilitate good decision making in children, preceding adulthood (O’Connor, McCormack, Feeney, 2014). For researchers, the most important questioned to ask is at what age do these counterfactual thoughts develop, and what enables them to occur. A critical review of previous and current studies will allow further light to be shed into the developmental questions of counterfactual thinking.


According to the consensus among psychologists, counterfactual thoughts refer to mental representations that are explicitly contrary to facts or beliefs; mental constructions of alternatives to past events (Byrne, 2005; Epstude & Roese, 2008; Roese, 1997). Counterfactual emotions are believed to perform, important adaptive functions, and facilitates significant emotional regulatory abilities, and hence require additional complex cognitive processing than more basic emotions such as anger, sadness or fear (Byrne, 2002). These thoughts require individuals to consider alternate possibilities, in which both outcomes were attainable at some point in the past. Recent studies have determined that the ability for children to experience regret and other counterfactual emotions are pivotal for making better decisions and for the development of decision-making abilities, preceding adulthood (O’Connor, McCormack & Feeney, 2014).The thought processes of “what if” and “if only” within the function of counterfactual emotions relies on an analysis of two opposing, yet equally possible outcomes, and can ultimately serve important adaptive functions. Researchers have questioned at what age these counterfactual thoughts develop, and what catalyses’ these responses to occur. Previous studies have proposed that regret emerges at around 4 years of age, whilst others have argued that the ability to comprehend and interpret counterfactual emotions, including regret, occur around 6-8 years of age. The results of multiple studies have argued that having a capacity to comprehend, instead of solely experiencing counterfactual emotions, is a necessity for a child’s ability to conceive alternative realities, and that a recognition of differing outcomes is necessary, rather than just the sufficient component of the development of regret.

The two defining attributes of a functional interpretation of a psychological process are that (a) the process is activated by a particular deficit or need and (b) the process produces changes that end the deficit or fulfill the need (Epstude & Roese, 2008). Within the context of counterfactual thinking, if its primary function is problem solving, then counterfactual thinking should be activated by cognitive problems, resulting in behaviour’s that correct those problems.

Guttentag & Ferrel, 2014, argued that a child’s understanding of “what if” concepts, and regret, develop relatively late in childhood due to the complexities of comprehending such counterfactual thinking. If children are not able to generate these comparisons, the “what if” and “if only” functions of counterfactual emotion. Little research has been conducted on these cognitive processes responsible for the development of regret in early childhood, and thus many inconsistencies exist within the theoretical understandings of regret, and subsequently further research is required in order to overcome these age-related discrepancies.

Beck, Riggs & Gorniak (2009) conducted a similar experiment, examining various counterfactual conditioning tasks where child participants were either shown or told about an event or sequence of events, and asked to judge what would happen if particular aspects of the situation were changed (Beck et al, 2009). For example, a study conducted by Riggs, Peterson, Robinsons & Mitchell (1998), ‘Mum’ was making cake, she took the chocolate from the drawer, used some, and put it away in the cupboard. The participants, aged 4 years and under, were asked where the chocolate would be if ‘Mum’ never got the chocolate out. Many reported answers incorrectly, stating where the chocolate is now, rather than where it was earlier. These conditioning tasks vary in whether the event involves a mishap and how the tasks are presented, and there is some discussion about the relative difficulty of these tasks. (German & Nicholls, 2003; Guajardo & Turley-Ames, 2004; Harris, German & Mills, 1996; Perner, Sprung & Steinkogler, 2004).

Counterfactual syllogisms, another type of conditioning tasks used to further examine counterfactual emotions, involve the child attempting to reason with a premise they know to be false, in order to derive a false conclusion. For example “All cats bark. Penny is a cat. Does Penny bark?”. Although, empirically the true answer is that cats do not bark, if the participant treats the initial premise as true, then the logical answer

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Roese 1991, defined counterfactual thinking as an ability to think about “what could have been had an alternative decision been made or had the outcome been different”. Within this paradigm of counterfactual thoughts, regret has been the center of focus for much of the research. Beck et al (2006) hypothesized that the theoretical perspective that counterfactual emotions develop late in childhood due to the high demand placed on a child’s information processing capacity by the process of applying counterfactual thinking to the assessment of emotional responses (Ferrel et al, 2014). Whilst this view is widely agreed upon by psychologists, theories differ in regards to the age at which the emotion of regret emerges. Weisberg (2001) determined that the emergence of such emotions occurs around 4 years of age, but Guttentag and Ferrel (2004) found that although children are able to think about counterfactual alternatives as early as 3 years of age, it is not until at least 7 years of age that children begin to consider how counterfactual thinking can affect people’s emotions.

The latter study examines the reflection on the reasoning behind the emotion (“Why does the child regret choosing box A, containing nothing, when they could have chosen Box B, containing candy”). As aforementioned, experiencing regret, and an important “What if/If Only” function of counterfactual thought involves a comparison of reality with a better outcome. Guttentag & Ferrel attempted to explore counterfactual emotions within the context of comprehending and applying it within reasoning tasks. Through cognitive processing tasks, the researchers determined that the experience of regret occurred early in childhood, but argued that it wasn’t until 7 years of age that a child is able to demonstrate why an alternative reality might affect the emotional reaction to the actual outcome. The researchers suggested that, based on the relevant data, children less than 5 or 6 years are not capable of creating a comparison between a real and counterfactual reality. According to this perspective, the comparison between two previously possible outcomes is critical (Ferrel & Guttentag, 2004). This theory was further examined in 2009 by Beck and Crilly, who hypothesized that “an inability to compare the two worlds limits children’s thinking about regret” (Beck & Crilly, 2009).

Beck, Robinson, Carrol and Apperley (2006) presented a similar perspective, arguing that it’s not until children are aged 5-6 years old that counterfactual and real events were two equally possible outcomes. The researchers conducted several studies following this hypothesis. Children aged between 3 and 6 years of age were asked open and closed questions regarding the path of a remote controlled mouse. Children aged 3 found it difficult to answer the question “what if he had gone the other way, where would he be?”, as opposed to “could he have gone anywhere else?”. Comparatively, those aged 6 and older performed significantly better, with 85% answering the open ended 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. Beck et al conducted further studies, but used an open ended question and a regret to measure children’s ability to comprehend regret.

The outcomes demonstrated that, in opposition to Beck et al, 2006, it isn’t sufficient to just distinguish two counterfactual potential outcomes with the goal for children to perceive regret, giving more proof to demonstrate Guttentag and Ferrel’s 2004 investigations that demonstrated that the examination of two opposing outcomes is basic in the development of regret. Beck and Crilly further hypothesised that understanding two counterfactual truths was significant, as opposed to a simple development of the cognitive processes of regret. dequate formative objective int in the subjective handling of disappointment. German and Nichol’s (2003) examination suggested that the experience of counterfactual reasoning could happen as early as 4 years old. Their investigation used several 3 – 4 year olds, who were recounted stories that included two alternative results. At the point when the children were given a negative result, they were inquired as to whether the character in the story would be happy or sad. It was accounted for that kids answered more than two thirds of the counterfactual inquiries correctly. The information was utilized to speculate that kids as young as 3 years could appreciate fundamental counterfactual realities, and understand “what if” and “if only” functions, demonstrating the emergence of regret.

An analysis of the current information shows that counterfactual thinking may develop earlier than suspected, a consensus shared among social and developmental psychologists. In spite of this, there is proof to contradict this hypothesis. Beck et al researched the examinations led by German and Nichols and found various false positives were accounted for. The researchers study proposed that the counterfactual thinking exhibited by the 3-4 year olds could be credited to the children’s general learning, and the questions utilized were too easy to possibly be reliable. Beck et al argued that the questions utilized in the investigation lead to answers that the children replied with pre-learned general information, including perceiving that ‘squashed flowers’ make individuals sad, and ‘unsquashed’ flowers make people happy (Beck et al, 2006). Where German and Nichols uncovered the development of counterfactual reasoning; may basically have been the children’s expression of past experience.

Whilst research on counterfactual thinking in childhood suggests that children develop the “what if” and “if only” functions of counterfactual thought, in addition to the emotion of regret, at approximately 4 years of age, there has been some criticism and will require more in depth research in the future to minimize current limitations, including small research groups and generalized data gathering. Completing and compiling further research will allow researches to develop a clearer picture into the development of counterfactual thoughts and regret in children.

In summation, research examining the emergence of counterfactual thinking in children has primarily focused on the significance of children to comprehend two opposing yet equally possible outcomes, and ultimately feel regret and remorse after choosing one outcome over another. The current studies give 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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