Executive control and the experience of regret

Patrick Burns, Kevin J. Riggs*, Sarah R. Beck

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)


The experience of regret rests on a counterfactual analysis of events. Previous research indicates that regret emerges at around 6. years of age, marginally later than the age at which children begin to answer counterfactual questions correctly. We hypothesized that the late emergence of regret relative to early counterfactual thinking is a result of the executive demands of simultaneously holding in mind and comparing dual representations of reality (counterfactual and actual). To test this hypothesis, we administered two regret tasks along with four tests of executive function (two working memory tasks, a switch task, and an inhibition task) to a sample of 104 4- to 7-year-olds. Results indicated that switching, but not working memory or inhibition, was a significant predictor of whether or not children experienced regret. This finding corroborates and extends previous research showing that the development of counterfactual thinking in children is related to their developing executive competence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)501-515
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 01 Mar 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Attentional switching
  • Complex emotions
  • Counterfactual thinking
  • Development
  • Executive function
  • Regret

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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