These are the main topics I am working on.
Human children are experts at learning how to use premade tools from others. However, we have recently demonstrated that they are remarkably poor at innovating novel tools. We gave children a simple hook making task based on tasks used with corvids (New Caledonian Crows and Rooks) and found that only about half of 5– to 7-year-olds spontaneously passed the task. It was not until 8 years of age that children were able to make their own simple tools to solve problems. This work is a collaboration with Ian Apperly, Jackie Chappell, Nicola Cutting, and Clare Williams and has been funded by the ESRC, British Academy, and the College Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham Cutting Edge Competition.
Adults often speculate about what might have been. I investigate the cognitive processes that underpin this counterfactual thinking by exploring its development in children. Our research has shown that counterfactual thinking continues to develop into middle-childhood and that these developments are related to executive function development. We have explored the relationship between reasoning and the experience of counterfactual emotions, such as regret and relief. These are relatively late developing and appear to be related to children’s understanding of choice and chance events.
This work has been funded by three grants from the ESRC and the British Academy to me and Kevin Riggs. We have collaborated with Sarah Gorniak, Dan Carroll, Ian Apperly, Liz Robinson, Patrick Burns and Daniel Weisberg on this topic. Our most recent grant was associated with a European Science Foundation project led by Gernot Kleiter which has brought many opportunities to build collaborations in particular with Josef Perner and Eva Rafetseder.
I am collaborating with Aidan Feeney, Teresa McCormack and Glyn Humphreys on a new ESRC funded project investigating counterfactual emotions and decision making in child and neuropsychological patients. Caroline Putt’s PhD project will investigate different types of counterfactual thinking in patients. Livia Colda’s Msc by Research focuses on children’s counterfactual thinking.
Children are notoriously poor at evaluating their own ignorance. I have investigated how their nonverbal behaviours relate to their explicit metacognitive judgments. In a recent ESRC grant to Liz Robinson, Martin Rowley and me we found that children were much better at handling uncertainty when it was about an outcome that had yet to be determined (physical uncertainty) than when it had happened but remained unknown (epistemic uncertainty). We have also explored adults’ responses to these types of uncertainty finding that they make a simulation error when they imagine chance events in the past and future. Catherine Darnell is developing this work in her PhD and will use eye tracking to explore different ways of measuring children’s responses to physical and epistemic uncertainty.
Related projects include an investigation of the development of the illusion of control funded by the Experimental Psychology Society, and Amélie Gourdon’s PhD on verbal statements that communicate uncertainty.
Other collaborators on work on uncertainty include Becci Palethorpe, Kerry McColgan and Adam Harris.