Moving Beyond "Spoon" Tasks: The Emergence of Self-Directed Episodic Future Thinking



Atance CM, Ayson G & Martin-Ordas G (2023) Moving Beyond "Spoon" Tasks: The Emergence of Self-Directed Episodic Future Thinking. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science.

Much developmental (and comparative) research has used Tulving's Spoon test (i.e., whether an individual will select an item needed to solve a future problem) as the basis for designing tasks to measure episodic future thinking, defined as the capacity to mentally pre-experience the future. There is, however, intense debate about whether these tasks successfully do so. Most notably, it has been argued that children may pass (i.e., select an item with future utility) by drawing on non-episodic, associative processes, rather than on the capacity to represent the future, per se. Although subsequent developmental tasks have sought to address this limitation, we highlight what we argue is a more fundamental shortcoming of Spoon tasks: they prompt future-directed action making it impossible to determine whether children have used their episodic future thinking to guide their behavior. Accordingly, we know little about children's thought about the future that is independently generated (i.e., without prompting), or autocued, and is subsequently reflected (and measurable) by children's actions. We argue that this capacity is a critical, and heretofore overlooked, transition in future-oriented cognition that may not occur until middle childhood. We further hypothesize that it is reliant on children developing richer and more detailed future event representations, along with the necessary cognitive control to transform these representations into actions that serve to benefit their future selves. The time is ripe for researchers to explore this aspect of cognitive development and we suggest several novel approaches to do so.

autocueing; cognitive development; episodic future thinking; mental representation; mental time travel; Spoon test

Output Status: Forthcoming/Available Online

Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science

StatusIn Press
Publication date online09/04/2023
Date accepted by journal07/03/2023

People (1)


Dr Gema Martin-Ordas

Dr Gema Martin-Ordas

Senior Lecturer, Psychology