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Regret gets a bad press. It is a painful emotion experienced upon realising that a different decision would have led to a better outcome. And it is something that we strive to avoid. In sharp contrast, our recent research on children’s decision making emphasises that the ability to experience regret is a developmental achievement associated with learning to make better choices. The results of this research suggest a different, more functional relationship between regret and decision making.
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How does one go about studying regret in children, given that they may not have the term “regret” in their vocabularies? Developmental psychologists ask children to make simple choices between two options. Outcomes are engineered so that once they have received a small prize associated with their choice, they see that they could have obtained a better prize had they chosen the other option. Using this task, the ability to experience regret can be tested for by asking children to express how they feel about the outcome of their decision on a child-friendly rating scale before and then after they see what they could have won instead. Feeling worse in the light of information about what they would have won had they decided differently is interpreted as evidence of regret. This goes beyond the child merely feeling sad or frustrated that they haven’t won the best prize.