Children’s understanding of relief in others

Activity: Academic talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Relief has been understudied relative to its psychological importance. Moreover, developmental psychology has focused only on the type of relief that is felt when comparing reality to a worse counterfactual world (counterfactual relief). Relief is also experienced, however, when an unpleasant experience is over and in the past (temporal relief; Sweeney & Vohs, 2012). The aims of the current study were first, to establish the age at which children can first attribute each type of relief to others, adding to the developmental literature which has focused primarily on children’s experiences of counterfactual relief, and second, to explore whether children’s understanding of these two types of relief follows different developmental trajectories.

Across four studies, we presented three counterfactual and three temporal relief vignettes to 401 children and 60 adults. Each vignette comprised of two protagonists who either endured an unpleasant episode, in temporal relief stories, or avoided an unpleasant episode, in counterfactual relief stories. The characters had different preferences, such that the endured or avoided episode was in fact negative for only one character (the ‘target’ character); for the other character it was neutral. To test their ability to attribute relief, at the end of each story, participants decided which character felt happier (see Figure 1).

In the first study, where participants indicated which character felt happier or that the characters felt the same, children up to 10-years-old typically judged that the two characters felt the same, regardless of relief type (see Table 1). By contrast, adults typically judged that the ‘target’ character would feel more relieved. When the ‘same’ option was removed in Study 2, to encourage children to focus on the differences between characters’ emotional states (see Figure 1b), 5-6-year-olds demonstrated a fledgling understanding of both types of relief but were less successful in the task than 9-11-year-olds and adults. Study 3 confirmed that 5-6-year-olds could remember crucial aspects of the stories, but the addition of memory checks made the overall task more cognitively demanding for this age group who were no more likely than chance to give ‘target’ responses. In a fourth study (conducted online) using finer-grained age groups, the vignettes were simplified so that participants were only required to mentally represent the characters’ feelings about one stimulus rather than two (see Figure 1c). Reducing working memory demands in this way facilitated children’s ability to correctly attribute relief as the majority of 6-year-olds, but not 4-year-olds, typically judged the ‘target’ characters as feeling happier. Interestingly, the 5-year-olds performed above chance in the counterfactual but not temporal relief stories.

This study provides the first evidence about when children begin to attribute relief (of either type) to others. Although there was little support for separate developmental trajectories in understanding the two types of relief, the results of the fourth study could suggest that while 5-year-olds may be able to compare actual and counterfactual states of affairs in order to attribute counterfactual relief, they may not spontaneously compare temporally separate states of affairs in order to attribute temporal relief.
Period7 Apr 2021
Event titleSociety for Research in Child Development Biannial Meeting 2021
Event typeConference