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What happens when kids pretend?

Two USC Dornsife researchers are the first to examine counterfactual reasoning in children

tea time
Imaginative play, and especially play with object substitution, may be a precursor to counterfactual thought. (Photo/courtesy of USC Dornsife)

We all wonder what might have been. How would reality be different if a certain event had not occurred … if you had taken that job or married that person?

“People especially tend to do this when a negative event happens, a car accident, for example,” said Henrike Moll, assistant professor of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Counterfactual reasoning is something we do frequently across many different types of tasks: In planning, diagnosis and decision-making.

Morteza Dehghani

“You’ve probably caught yourself thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, if I had left the house two minutes later, then I would not have gotten into this accident. Or if only I had slammed the break a second earlier, I could have prevented this disaster.”

Engaging in this kind of thinking is called counterfactual reasoning, the subject of a study being conducted by Moll and Morteza Dehghani, assistant professor of psychology and computer science at USC Dornsife’s Brain and Creativity Institute.

The two have received a $750,000 grant over three years from the Office of Naval Research to investigate and model the emergence of counterfactual reasoning, which plays a critical role in the way people diagnose, predict, decide and make moral and legal judgments.

Early development

This is where children enter the picture. In their research, Moll and Dehghani will observe and interact with children, focusing on the connection between pretend play and counterfactuals in early development.

Pretend play, typically showing by age 2, is characterized by acting “as if” something were something it is not. For example, when a child pretends a banana is a phone or a long stick is a horse. Imaginative play, and especially play with this form of object substitution (using x as y), may be a precursor to counterfactual thought.

Despite the connections between pretend play and counterfactuals, the link had not been empirically investigated until now. Moll and Dehghani will be the first to look for concurrent and longitudinal relations between pretend play and counterfactual reasoning in young children.

“What’s interesting is that children spontaneously, when they’re about a year and a half years old, drift into these alternative worlds,” said Moll, principal investigator on the project. “We don’t view this as counterfactual reasoning — that’s a high-level term that requires more sophisticated cognitive abilities — but what we do see them doing is engage in pretend play.

“For example, if I were to take this recorder and pretend to bite into it, producing exaggerated chewing movements and sounds, that’s pretend play,” Moll said. “We think this may be a precursor to counterfactual reasoning because you act as if something were the case. So you already project yourself in an alternative world. You pretend to be in a world that is not actual because this recorder is not a sandwich.”

Symbolic play

Pretend play is unique to humans, Moll noted.

“We don’t see pretend play in apes; they don’t take a stick and bite it as if it were a banana,” Moll said. “This form of symbolic play, where you’re pretending something is the case when it’s not, is something that’s specifically human and it might be related to language, which also relies on symbols in order to represent things.”

In their study of children, the researchers will test for their understanding of regret, the prime example of counterfactual emotions. Regret affords the consideration of past counterfactuals.

“You can’t experience regret unless you are able to reason counterfactually,” Moll said. “So if we find that children experience emotions of regret, we can attribute counterfactual reasoning to them.”

To determine regret, one part of the study may involve an arcade-like container filled with plush teddy bears and toys. The child would have to choose between two mechanical claws. The chosen claw would grab a toy and drop it into a chute that would open. But the game is rigged so that the chosen claw fails. Moll and Dehghani would observe any signs of regret in the child.

The longitudinal part of the study will assess how counterfactual reasoning develops over time. Moll and Dehghani plan to follow the same children for a few years.

“So the basis of this study is to see how children develop counterfactual reasoning,” Dehghani said, “and see whether you can use that process to model counterfactual reasoning in computers.”

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What happens when kids pretend?

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