We may have reached critical mass on “marshmallow tests” in recent years, but the latest series of experiments on young children’s self-control has got to be one of the cutest: Does pretending to be Batman help children resist temptation?
Are you kidding? Of course, it does.
For those of you who managed to avoid more than 75 years of comics, live and cartoon television series, and movies and video games, Batman is a cape-wearing crime-fighter known not for super powers, but for sheer dogged persistence (and fancy gadgets and money, of course—lots of money.) In fact, his strength of will is his key character trait:
That’s why, in a new study in Child Development, researchers led by Rachael White of Hamilton College used the Caped Crusader and other fictional characters associated with persistence to help 4- to 6-year-olds stay focused during a boring task. They asked 180 children to perform a repetitive task for 10 minutes, but said they could opt for breaks to play a video game with extra bells and whistles.
Building on Distancing Techniques
All of the children were told that performing the task would make them a “good helper” and told to occasionally ask themselves if they were working hard. While some simply referred to themselves in the first person, the researchers randomly assigned some students to refer to themselves by name in the third person—a method which has been shown before to help children gain some “emotional distance” to a temptation and see it more objectively. A third group of children were asked to imagine themselves as an “exemplar ... someone else who is really good at working hard” such as Batman, Rapunzel, Dora the Explorer, or Bob the Builder.
As you can imagine, the video game was a pretty strong distractor: Children on average spent more than 60 percent of their time on “breaks.” As in prior experiments on self control, older children could hold out and stay focused longer than younger ones, with 6-year-olds spending about 46 percent of their time on the task, compared to less than 30 percent of time on task for 4-year-olds.
But at every age, pretending to be a strong-willed character helped the children be more persistent themselves.
There were no significant differences by children’s race or economic status, since the overwhelming majority of the children were white and from middle-class or wealthier backgrounds.
What’s in a Character?
The findings build on a prior study in Developmental Science using a similar experiment for children ages 3 to 5. That one found the same benefits for 5-year-old students pretending to be Batman, but not for 3-year-olds.
That raises some fascinating questions, which the authors themselves admit. Are children gaining willpower simply from divorcing themselves more and more from the immediate temptation—not just thinking of themselves from the outside, but pretending to be someone else entirely? Or are they actively gathering mental strength from pretending to be someone with stronger willpower than they have?
And for the 3-year-olds who didn’t see the same benefits, is that because they were simply too young to distance themselves, or because they had not seen the characters enough to understand how they were role models?
Regardless of why, the findings give yet more evidence to the argument from educators that more time for children to engage in free play and role-playing can improve, not distract from, their cognitive development.
“In the future, even short-term longitudinal experiments could provide critical insights as to the generalizability and longevity of the benefits seen here for self-control,” they concluded. “One possibility would be to examine whether allowing children to experience and practice successful self-regulation in the context of role play might strengthen these skills to a point where they are sufficient to help them succeed without the aid of pretense.”
Chart: Pretending to be a strong-willed character helped 4- and 6-year-olds stay on a boring task longer, in spite or distractions. Source: Child Development
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.