Professor Sarah Beck PhD

Professor Sarah Beck

School of Psychology
Professor of Cognitive Development

Contact details

School of Psychology
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

Sarah Beck - Research in 60 seconds video

Sarah's research examines how we think imaginatively about the real world. She is especially interested in how children become able to speculate about what might have been (counterfactual thinking) and how they think creatively to solve novel problems, particularly those involving tools. She takes a developmental approach, focusing on how children’s imaginative thinking changes and what cognitive factors influence this change. She collaborates to take a broad approach to cognition in clinical groups and recently, in nonhuman animals. More information about my research and my lab can be found at

Feedback and office hours

I set office hours during term time. For meetings at other times please contact me by email.


  • PhD (Birmingham)
  • BA (Oxford)


Dr Beck completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford in Psychology and Philosophy (PPP) before moving to become a research assistant at the University of Birmingham, where she has studied and worked ever since.


Sarah Beck teaches a 3rd year optional module on comparative and developmental cognition: Higher Cognitive Functions.


I am interested in the ability to think about things outside the here and now: to imagine alternative possibilities and worlds. I am particularly interested in how children speculate about events in the past (counterfactual thinking) and their innovative problem solving. I explore the cognitive components of these higher cognitive functions in children and adults. I also collaborate to work with atypical populations.

More information about my research and my lab can be found at


Other activities

  • Awarded the 2011 Margaret Donaldson Early Career Prize by the British Psychological Society Developmental Section
  • Psychology Programme Chair for the for the European Society for Philosophy and Psychology between 2008 – 2011
  • College of Life and Environmental Sciences Equality & Diversity Lead


Highlight publications

Reindl, E, Tennie, C, Apperly, I, Lugosi, Z & Beck, S 2022, 'Young children spontaneously invent three different types of associative tool use behaviour', Evolutionary Human Sciences, vol. 4, e5.

Graham, A, McCormack, T, Lorimer, S, Hoerl, C, Beck, S, Johnston, M & Feeney, A 2022, 'Relief in Everyday Life', Emotion, vol. 2022.

Beck, S 2017, 'Interaction between comparative psychology and cognitive development', Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, vol. 16, pp. 138-141.

Beck, S, Apperly, I, Chappell, J, Guthrie, C & Cutting, N 2011, 'Making tools isn’t child’s play', Cognition, vol. 119, no. 2, pp. 301-306.

Beck, S, Robinson, E, Carroll, D & Apperly, I 2006, 'Children's thinking about counterfactuals and future hypotheticals as possibilities', Child Development, vol. 77, no. 2, pp. 413-426.

Recent publications


Lorimer, S, McCormack, T, Hoerl, C, Johnston, M, Beck, SR & Feeney, A 2023, 'Do both anticipated relief and anticipated regret predict decisions about influenza vaccination?', British Journal of Health Psychology.

Osuna-Mascaró, AJ, O'Hara, M, Folkertsma, R, Tebbich, S, Beck, S & Auersperg, AMI 2023, 'Flexible tool set transport in Goffin’s cockatoos', Current Biology.

Waite, J, Beck, S, Powis, L & Oliver, C 2023, 'The Executive Function Account of Repetitive Behavior: Evidence From Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome', American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, vol. 128, no. 1, pp. 49-65.

Perry, V, Ellis, K, Moss, J, Beck, SR, Singla, G, Crawford, H, Waite, J, Richards, C & Oliver, C 2022, 'Executive function, repetitive behaviour and restricted interests in neurodevelopmental disorders', Research in Developmental Disabilities, vol. 122, 104166.

Osuna-Mascaró, AJ, Mundry, R, Tebbich, S, Beck, S & Auersperg, AMI 2022, 'Innovative composite tool use by Goffin’s cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana)', Scientific Reports, vol. 12, no. 1, 1510.

Xie, Y & Beck, S 2022, 'The bidirectional relation between counterfactual thinking and closeness, controllability, and exceptionality', Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 13, 732870.

Fournier, I, Beck, SR, Droit-Volet, S, Brogniart, J & Osiurak, F 2021, 'Learning versus reasoning to use tools in children', Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, vol. 211, 105232.

McCormack, T, Feeney, A & Beck, S 2020, 'Regret and decision making: a developmental perspective', Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 346-350.

Beck, SR & Rafetseder, E 2019, 'Are counterfactuals in and about time? Commentary on Hoerl & McCormack', Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

McCormack, T, O'Connor, E, Cherry, J, Beck, S & Feeney, A 2019, 'Experiencing regret about a choice helps children learn to delay gratification', Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, vol. 179, pp. 162-175.

Cutting, N, Apperly, I, Chappell, J & Beck, S 2019, 'Is tool modification more difficult than innovation?', Cognitive Development, vol. 52, 100811.

Feeney, A, Travers, E, O'Connor, E, Beck, S & McCormack, T 2018, 'Knowing when to hold ‘em: regret and the relation between missed opportunities and risk taking in children, adolescents and adults', Cognition & emotion, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 608-615.

Whalley, C, Cutting, N & Beck, S 2017, 'The effect of prior experience on children’s tool innovation', Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, vol. 161, pp. 81-94.


Beck, S & Harris, P 2022, 'The development of the imagination and imaginary worlds', Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 45, E278.

Review article

Beck, S 2020, 'The subject of children’s counterfactual thoughts', Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.

View all publications in research portal