Here’s How The Experience Of Regret Develops Through Childhood

By Emma Young

Edith Piaf famously regretted nothing. But regret is an important emotion, because it can lead us to avoid repeating mistakes, or to heal damaged relationships. It’s also an emotion that many of us feel on a regular basis. “Regret is ubiquitous and powerful,” write Teresa McCormack at Queen’s University Belfast and colleagues in a new paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science. “It is one of the most frequently mentioned emotions in conversation and affects a huge variety of everyday choices.”

Though there’s been plenty of work on regret in adults, much less is known about how it develops in children. In this new review, McCormack and her colleagues consider what we do know about its development, and outline the major gaps still left to fill. There are implications not just for the basic understanding of regret but also for informing educators in nurseries and schools. After all, even young children are expected to feel bad about harming others — but, depending on their age, there are limits to just what they can feel in such a scenario.

Research suggests that by the time they are six years old, most children are able to feel at least some sense of regret. In their own work, the team has found that children are more “sad” when they take a risk and it doesn’t pay off. (In this case, 6- and 7-year-olds had to choose between a “safe” box, which gave them an equal chance of winning either 7 or 10 tokens to put towards a prize, or a “risky” box, which gave them an equal chance of winning 16 tokens or only one.) The team also found that children who experienced most regret were most likely to go for a safer option the following day — so regret did affect their decision-making. 

Follow-up work on the same age group revealed that a sense of regret can also encourage children to wait longer for a bigger reward. This is significant because, as the authors write: “‘Hot’ emotional responses are sometimes portrayed as being something that ‘cold’ cognition needs to overcome for delaying gratification”. But the results show that regret, which is of course an emotion, can itself drive a child’s decision to delay gratification.  This suggests, then, that it’s sensible to let children make their own mistakes (at least, when the outcome is not significantly harmful). Warning words from a sensible adult may not be as effective at directing wise decision-making as “hot” regret.

For adults, regret can stem not just from a sense of having made the “wrong” decision but a feeling of having missed an opportunity. It seems that this type of regret doesn’t emerge until about the age of 8 — and even then it matures slowly. Even adolescents aren’t as responsive to this type as regret as adults. It’s possible that they can’t anticipate regret as well as adults can, either. Research on younger children finds that though most 6-year-olds can feel regret, they can’t reliably predict that they will feel regret in one particular future scenario, compared with another.

Exactly when this ability emerges is still unclear — but, as the researchers point out, if an adolescent has a still only partially developed ability to anticipate regret, they may make risky decisions, such as not using contraception.

Adults can of course feel regret not just in relation to ourselves, but also in relation to our behaviour towards other people. We might regret not being more gracious about an unwanted birthday gift, for example, or regret not calling a friend who we later discover was going through a difficult time.

Last year, McCormack and her colleagues explored this kind of “interpersonal” regret in groups of 5- to 6-year-olds and 7- to 9-year-olds. In this study, children collected stickers to win a prize, and could also give their stickers to other children. When the younger children discovered that they had kept a sticker that they didn’t ultimately need but which, if they had given it to another child, would have allowed that child to win a prize, they didn’t seem to experience any regret. However, the 7- to 9-year-olds did. The team also found that the children who experienced this type of regret were more likely to act pro-socially on a subsequent task. As the team writes, “This latter finding suggested that interpersonal regret can result in children acting more kindly.”

A lot more work is still needed to investigate how this type of regret drives moral development. And there are other major unanswered questions. Little has been done to explore how regret affects children’s and adolescents’ decisions out of the lab, in the real world, for example.

Overall, though, the team concludes that the work to date paints a picture of regret as a “sophisticated emotion that develops relatively late in childhood” — as well as one that we clearly need to understand better.

Regret and Decision-Making: A Developmental Perspective

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest