Much attention has recently been given to the psychological capacity for ‘episodic foresight’, which involves imagining, preparing for, and actively shaping specific future events. Because of the relative youth of the field, however, many questions about the nature, ontogeny, and phylogeny of this capacity remain unanswered. Here I present a number of theoretical perspectives and empirical investigations that attempt to answer some of these questions.
In Chapter 2, I provide the first review of evidence for the development of numerous cognitive components that have been implicated in episodic foresight, and the future-oriented behaviours these components enable. I find that the components develop along varying trajectories throughout childhood and beyond, but between ages three and five critical milestones are achieved in each of them. And indeed, around this time children also begin to show evidence of flexible future-oriented behaviour in diverse contexts. I then present four chapters describing empirical studies of novel future-oriented behaviours in children around these ages.
In Chapter 3’s study, I measured children’s capacity to recall a problem from the past and select an object that could solve that problem in a deferred future episode. Previous studies assessing children’s future-oriented object selection had involved future episodes that were merely hypothetical or occurred immediately after the selection. I found that 4-year-olds could remember a problem from 15 minutes ago in another room, and select an object that would solve the problem upon return to the room after a 5-minute sand-timer had completed a cycle. When compared with previous findings, this result suggests that acting for a deferred future episode may place no extra demands on children’s episodic foresight than acting for an immediate future episode.
In Chapter 4’s studies, I measured children’s capacity to seek information that would only be useful in a specific future episode. This behaviour forms a crucial aspect of human learning (e.g., during schooling), but studies had so far focused only on children’s information seeking to achieve an immediate goal. In Study 1 (two experiments), I again used the two-room paradigm to show that many 5-year-olds could recall a problem from the past and seek information to solve that problem in the future. Four-year-olds did not perform above chance level when low-level associative explanations were controlled for, but it remained unclear what caused their poor performance. In Study 2, I relaxed memory demands and gave children the opportunity to seek information in the same context as the future problem. Again, 5-year-olds but not 4-year-olds performed above chance level, although even the older children did not perform at ceiling level.
In Chapter 5’s study, I measured children’s capacity to remember to carry out an intended action at a particular future time, in both the presence and absence of cues to perform the action. Previous studies of time-based prospective memory had included event-based cues (e.g., a visible clock) that can externally remind participants when to perform the crucial action. I administered 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds a novel paradigm in which they had to remember to ring a bell at the end of a 1-minute sand-timer’s cycle, while also engaged in a secondary ongoing activity. I found that most 4-year-olds could remember to ring the bell when the passage of sand through the timer was visible, but even 5-year-olds struggled when the passage of sand was hidden.
In Chapter 6’s study, I measured children’s capacity to prepare for multiple, mutually exclusive outcomes of a single future event. Previous studies of this capacity had included complex intermediate steps between the preparatory behaviour and the future outcome, while also relying heavily on language comprehension. I designed a novel minimalist task in which 2-4 year-olds were given the opportunity to catch a ball dropped into a forked tube with one opening at the top but two openings at the bottom. I found that many 3-year-olds and most 4-year-olds spontaneously covered both bottom openings of the tube in their first attempt to catch the ball, suggesting they possessed insight into the task contingencies and some understanding of future uncertainty. Many younger children demonstrated their capacity to cover both openings on later trials, but the particular pattern of results suggested this may have been due to simple trial-and-error learning. Because the paradigm used in Chapter 6’s study has minimal language demands and relies on simple behavioural responses, I was also able to administer a preliminary test to three chimpanzees. None of these subjects spontaneously prepared for both potential outcomes of the immediate future event on the first trial, although one learned to reliably do so after many trials. In Chapter 7, I expand on a discussion point raised by these findings, and present a novel theoretical perspective suggesting that non-human animals may lack one of the crucial components of episodic foresight (metarepresentation) described at the beginning of the thesis.
In Chapter 8, I conclude with a general discussion summarising the empirical findings and making detailed suggestions for future research. I also provide an age-based analysis of the overall results, suggesting they offer additional evidence for the proposal that children’s episodic foresight shows important developments throughout the preschool years. Finally, I revisit the componential analysis of episodic foresight and recommend some additions and alterations to the components in light of my novel empirical findings and theoretical proposals.