The More I Can Choose, The More I Am Disappointed: The “Illusion of Control” in Children’s Decision-Making

Ilaria Castelli1, 2, *, Davide Massaro2, Alan G. Sanfey3, Antonella Marchetti2
1 Dipartimento di Scienze Umane e Sociali, Università degli Studi di Bergamo, Bergamo, Italy
2 Unità di Ricerca sulla Teoria della Mente, Dipartimento di Psicologia, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano, Italy
3 Donders Institute for Brain, Mind and Behavior, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Article Metrics

CrossRef Citations:
Total Statistics:

Full-Text HTML Views: 1481
Abstract HTML Views: 1467
PDF Downloads: 455
ePub Downloads: 310
Total Views/Downloads: 3713
Unique Statistics:

Full-Text HTML Views: 617
Abstract HTML Views: 847
PDF Downloads: 320
ePub Downloads: 210
Total Views/Downloads: 1994

Creative Commons License
© 2017 Castelli et al.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: ( This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Università degli Studi di Bergamo, Dipartimento di Scienze Umane e Sociali Address: Piazzale S. Agostino, 2 - 24129 Bergamo, Italy, Tel: 00390352052934; E-mail:



Decision making is a complex psychological process driven by emotions. Among the most unpleasant ones are the situations when the obtained outcome is not the one expected. This emotional experience is influenced by sense of agency, i.e. the feeling that we voluntarily control our actions and, through them, events in the world. Negative counterfactual emotions as disappointment have been marginally analyzed in children’s decision-making, and the study of children’s sense of agency could help to understand them.


To evaluate during childhood the valence of disappointment in decision making in relation to the possibility of choosing or not.


107 children (age range 7-10 years) rated their emotions before and after discovering the outcome, in two experimental conditions: choice condition, where the child could decide which of the two remaining tickets to choose in order to win some candies, and no choice condition, where the child could not decide as only one ticket was left.


The self-attribution of a positive emotional state was significantly higher in the choice condition than in the no choice condition, so the possibility to pick up the ticket made children happier in general, by promoting an “illusion of control”, which is absent in the no choice condition. Then, after discovering the bad outcome, the emotions collapse, settling at substantially similar values.


Children have experienced a sense of agency for their choice, thus leading to an illusion of control for the decision process and to the so-called “wishful thinking”.

Keywords: Sense of agency, Illusion of control, Disappointment, Decision making, Child development.