When Do Children Ask ‘What If’?


Lily FitzGibbon, Ph.D., plays a matching game with a child in the Minds In Development lab at USC. Other games are played on the computer. PHOTO COURTESY MINDS IN DEVELOPMENT LAB

You’re on the freeway and the driver in front of you slams on the breaks. You can’t avoid rear-ending the car. Still, as you pull over, you sigh with relief that the accident wasn’t serious. And maybe you are a little more cautious on your next commute.

This is an example of counterfactual reasoning or “what if” thinking. It helps us feel regret when things could have gone better, relief when they could have been worse, and allows us to learn from our mistakes and make better decisions.

“It comes very naturally to adults, particularly after a bad decision,” says Lily FitzGibbon, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the Minds in Development Lab at USC. Fitzgibbon and her fellow researchers are studying the development of “what if” thinking in children, and – if you have a child between the ages of 3 and 6 – you can help.

Here’s what we know so far:

  • By age 3, most children are able to identify when something almost happened, like when a cup almost fell off the table.
  • Around age 5 or 6, kids begin to feel relief when things might have been better, and regret when they might have been worse.
  • By 8 or 9, children can begin to reason that if they weren’t running through the house, they wouldn’t have bumped the table and caused the cup to fall.

“One reason why counterfactual reasoning is difficult in particular is because [children] have to set aside what they know to be true about the world in order to think about how things could have been different,” explains FitzGibbon.

FitzGibbon and her colleagues have been studying this thinking through games they ask children to play.

In one, children play a computer game where they choose between two cards. If their card matches the computer’s card, they receive a star. Next, they see the card that they did not choose, and are given the option to move on to the next pair of cards or repeat the turn (and possibly improve the outcome).

In the newest study, children play the card-matching game but aren’t automatically shown the card they did not choose. Instead, they are shown how to use “X-ray glasses” if they want to see the card they did not choose. “We know from other research that adults are incredibly curious about how the decision they didn’t make would have turned out,” says FitzGibbon, but this hasn’t been studied in children.

The team is looking for children to participate, and families can come to the lab on the USC University Park Campus (and have free parking near the Natural History Museum and the California Science Center for the day!), or visit one of their research events at Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, or the Zimmer Children’s Museum in L.A.

Visit the lab’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/usc.midla or email midlausc@gmail.com for more information.

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