Regret plays a crucial role in helping children to make better decisions, according to new research from Queen's University Belfast.
This study, led by Aidan Feeney and funded by the ESRC, has found that only some children are able to experience regret at age six. However, those that do then learn to make better decisions.
"People experience regret when they compare the outcome of a decision they've made with a better one- the one they didn't take," said Dr Feeney, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology.
"It's a much-maligned emotion but our study suggests that developing the ability to experience regret may be important. It could have significant value to children's development because of its role in decision-making.
"We're not saying teachers and parents should deliberately expose children to serious regret. But showing them how things would have turned out differently if they'd made an alternative choice could benefit them."
Adults know to switch their behaviour the next time when a different decision would have led to a better outcome. This helps them avoid experiencing another negative result.
They learn not to press the snooze button on their alarm for example because this has made them late for work before.
However, less is known about how and when children experience regret, and how they learn from this emotion.
The researchers set out to investigate the theory that regret enables better decision-making in children. In one set of experiments, they asked a group of children mostly aged between six and seven to choose one of two boxes.
The outcomes were fixed so that every child received a sticker when the box they chose was opened. The children had to rate how happy or sad they felt about their decisions.
They were then shown how opening the other box would have meant they received more stickers, and asked to rate their feelings again. The children who felt worse after learning about the unchosen box were said by the researchers to have experienced regret.
All the children were offered exactly the same choice the next day. The researchers found those who had experienced regret the day before were more likely to switch. This was to the box that had contained more stickers previously.
The findings suggest that the 'regret' children were more likely to remember the first day's negative outcome without being prompted. This memory led them to change their behaviour by switching the box they chose the next time they did the task.
Other experiments in the study demonstrated that children as young as six experienced regret when they chose a box containing fewer or no rewards. However, it took them another year or two to develop the ability to anticipate that this is how they would feel.
Dr Feeney says more research is needed to understand how anticipating regret influences decision-making in older children and adolescents.
"At Queen's we are looking forward to developing this research further and advancing knowledge in this area. There's much concern over the choices some teenagers make, for example around sexual behaviour and alcohol," he adds.
"We don't want teenagers to experience regret by making decisions with very serious consequences. Instead, we need to understand how learning about other people's regrets might help them anticipate feeling the emotion themselves and therefore chose more wisely."