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Thinking about what might have been: the development of children's counterfactual thinking

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Adults often think about ‘what might have been’ and experience counterfactual emotions, most commonly regret, as a result of this. In this talk I will present data that suggests that counterfactual thinking has a protracted development in childhood and (in part) relies on development of executive functions. Among the many types of imaginative thought, counterfactual thinking is special in the relation it holds with reality. When speculating about what might have been, individuals must avoid dwelling on the real world and yet also generate closely matched alternatives that are relevant to real experiences and choices. I will review data suggesting that managing this relation makes specific cognitive demands in development, which may or may not persist in the adult system. I will also explore whether children, like adults, spontaneously infer aspects of the real world on hearing counterfactuals.

Profile: Sarah’s research interests are in children’s imaginative thinking. Her experimental work with typically developing children aged 3-10 explores children’s understanding of time and problem-solving. She completed her UG degree in Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Oxford, moved to the University of Birmingham to complete her PhD on metacognition, and has remained at Birmingham as a member of Faculty since 2003. She was awarded the Margaret Donaldson Early Career prize by the British Psychological Society Developmental Section in 2011.

This talk is part of the Psychology & Education series.

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