The development of relief

  • Matthew Johnston

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Despite being cited as a prototypical and universally recognised emotion, relief has received little empirical attention within psychology. This is even more surprising when considering the weight of research that has examined regret, an emotion many scholars consider to be the antonym of relief. What makes research into relief complicated is the fact that relief can arise in two quite distinct circumstances: Relief is experienced either at the end of an experienced negative event (temporal relief), but also occurs when comparing reality to a worse counterfactual outcome (counterfactual relief). The distinction between two precursors to relief raises an important developmental question: If these two relief types occur in different contexts, they may rely on separate cognitive prerequisites and thus may emerge at different stages in development. Primarily, this thesis aimed to shed light on whether temporal and counterfactual instances of relief rely on separate cognitive prerequisites by examining relief's emergence in childhood. More specifically, this thesis explored children's ability to understand the two types of relief in others. This was important given that previous developmental research has primarily focused on children's ability to experience counterfactual relief. Overall, this thesis provides the first positive evidence in the literature as to when children can begin to attribute counterfactual and temporal relief to others. Consistent with previous research into children’s understanding of emotions, the results suggest that children’s understanding of relief does not emerge all at once but rather develops gradually and interacts with the cognitive demands of the task. Taken together, there was little evidence in this thesis to suggest that children’s understanding of temporal and counterfactual relief have separate developmental trajectories. Although future work is needed to compare children’s ability to experience the two types of relief, this thesis has made important first steps in examining the development of relief.

Thesis embargoed until 31st December 2024
Date of AwardDec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorAidan Feeney (Supervisor) & Teresa McCormack (Supervisor)


  • Relief
  • counterfactual thinking
  • temporal cognition
  • emotion understanding
  • complex emotions
  • child development

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