Research Activities

Kid sitting at a desk with light bulb hat

Our lab is interested in how young children develop the capacity to “mentally travel” through time. That is, when and how do young children begin to think about the future (e.g., what they’ll do tomorrow) and how is this ability related to their memory for the past? We have a series of ongoing projects that examine a diverse array of topics within this area:

How do we measure young children’s capacity for future thought?

The goal of this work is to develop experimental paradigms to assess whether children can take into account past (or present) information to make adaptive choices for the future. Recent work in this area includes:

Caza, J. S., O’Brien, B. M., Cassidy, K. S., Ziani-Bey, H. A., & Atance, C. M. (2021). Tomorrow will be different: Children’s ability to incorporate an intervening event when thinking about the future. Developmental Psychology, 57, 376–385.

Atance, C. M., Celebi, S. N., Mitchinson, S., & Mahy, C. E. V. (2019). Thinking about the future: Comparing children’s forced-choice versus “generative” responses in the “spoon test.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 181, 1-16.

Caza, J. S., & Atance, C. M. (2019). Children's behavior and spontaneous talk in a future thinking task. Psychological Research, 83, 761-773.

Atance, C. M., Louw, A., & Clayton, N. S. (2015). Thinking ahead about where something is needed: New insights about episodic foresight in preschoolers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 129, 98-109.

Understanding changes in mental states

Although developmental psychologists have conducted a great deal of research about children’s understanding of others’ minds (often called “theory of mind”), there is very little research about children’s understanding of how their own minds or “mental states” change over time. In this work, we seek to better understand young children’s understanding that what they like, feel, and know now differed in the past and will differ in the future. Recent work in this area includes:

Kopp, L., Hamwi, L., & Atance, C. M. (2021). Self-projection in early development: Preschoolers’ reasoning about changes in their future and past preferences. Journal of Cognition and Development, 22, 246-266. DOI: 10.1080/15248372.2021.1874954 

Atance, C. M., & Caza, J. S. (2018). “Will I know more in the future than I know now?” Preschoolers’ judgments about changes in general knowledge. Developmental Psychology, 54, 857-865.

Kopp, L. Atance, C. M., & Pearce, S. (2017). Things aren’t as bad as they seem: Preschoolers over-predict the emotional intensity of negative outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 35, 623-627.

Bélanger, M., Atance, C. M., Varghese, A., Nguyen, V., & Vendetti, C. (2014). What will I like best when I’m all grown up? Preschoolers’ understanding of future preferences. Child Development, 85, 2419-2431.

The effects of psychological distance on children’s reasoning about the future

In this line of work, we’re studying how children’s (and adults’) reasoning about the future differs when they “distance” themselves from the self in the here-and-now. We do so by asking children to make predictions about their own futures, but also the futures of others (e.g., a same-age peer). We’ve also been asking children to “distance” by reasoning about what they’d do in a far-away location. We’re trying to determine whether children’s reasoning about the future differs depending on the perspective (“near” or “distant”) they assume. Recent work in this area includes:

Atance, C.M., Rutt, J.R., Cassidy, Mahy, C.E.V (2021). Young children's future-oriented reasoning for self and other: effects of conflict and perspective. Journal of Experimental Clinical Psychology, 209.

Bauckham, G., Lambert, R., Atance, C. M., Davidson, P. S. R., Taler, V., & Renoult, L. (2019). Predicting our own and others’ future preferences: The role of social distance. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 72, 634-642.

Lee, W. S. C., & Atance, C. M. (2016). The effect of psychological distance on children’s reasoning about future preferences. PLoS ONE 11(10): e0164382. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164382


Our lab is also very interested in how children’s capacity to think about the future translates into highly-adaptive behaviours such as saving. In recent work, we’ve been exploring how saving develops and also the kinds of manipulations that lead to increases in children’s saving. Recent work in this area includes:

Dueck, K., Aubin, E., Castro, A., Jerome, E., Kamawar, D., Milyavskaya, M., & Atance, C. (2019). The effect of verbal prompts on children's saving behavior in a novel token-based task. Poster presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Baltimore, USA.

Atance, C. M., Metcalf, J. L., & Thiessen, A. (2017). Helping children save: Tell them they can (if they want to). Cognitive Development, 43, 67-79.

Metcalf, J. L., & Atance, C. M. (2011). Do preschoolers save to benefit their future selves? Cognitive Development, 26, 371-382.

Although not as active in the following areas at present, our lab is also interested in young children’s talk about the future, links between future thinking, theory of mind, and executive function, future thinking in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and patience and delay of gratification.

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