Pretending to be Batman helps kids stay on task

By Christian Jarrett

Do their homework or reach over there for the iPad and dive into a world of games? It’s the ever-present dilemma facing young children today. Here’s a simple technique that could tip the balance a little in favour of the homework. Psychologists have reported in Child Development that when four- to six-year-olds pretended to be Batman while they were doing a boring but important task, it helped them to resist distraction and stay more focused. The challenge now is to nail down exactly why the technique works, and to see if over time it could improve children’s self-regulation skills without them needing to go through the ritual of pretending to be someone else.

Rachel White and her colleagues, including Angela Duckworth famous for her work on “grit”, recruited 180 kids aged 4 to 6 years and had them take some basic psych tests assessing their mental control, memory and empathy. Next the researchers asked them to complete a boring, slow but supposedly important ten-minute computer task that involved pressing the space bar whenever they saw a picture of cheese or not pressing anything when the screen showed a cat. The children were encouraged to stay on task, but they were told they could take a break whenever they wanted and go play a game on a nearby iPad.

Some of the children were assigned to a “self-immersed condition”, akin to a control group, and before and during the task were told to reflect on how they were doing, asking themselves “Am I working hard?”. Other children were asked to reflect from a third-person perspective, asking themselves “Is James [insert child’s actual name] working hard?” Finally, the rest of the kids were in the Batman condition, in which they were asked to imagine they were either Batman, Bob The Builder, Rapunzel or Dora the Explorer and to ask themselves “Is Batman [or whichever character they were] working hard?”. Children in this last condition were given a relevant prop to help, such as Batman’s cape. Once every minute through the task, a recorded voice asked the question appropriate for the condition each child was in [Are you working hard? or Is James working hard? or Is Batman working hard?].

The six-year-olds spent more time on task than the four-year-olds (half the time versus about a quarter of the time). No surprise there. But across age groups, and apparently unrelated to their personal scores on mental control, memory, or empathy, those in the Batman condition spent the most time on task (about 55 per cent for the six-year-olds; about 32 per cent for the four-year-olds). The children in the self-immersed condition spent the least time on task (about 35 per cent of the time for the six-year-olds; just over 20 per cent for the four-year-olds) and those in the third-person condition performed in between.

The results suggest that pretending to be a popular fictional character helps young children to resist distraction, at least compared to the other conditions used in this experiment. White and her team think this is probably at least partly because it helps create a feeling of self-distance from the task, which is known to help people resist immediate distractions and prioritise longer-term goals. The trouble is, there are so many other aspects to the Batman condition that could have led to its apparent benefits, such as perhaps it simply made the boring task more fun, or maybe the children identified with their fictional character and assumed some of his or her qualities.

“Regardless of the origins of the benefits [of the Batman condition] seen here, it is important to note that pretending to be another character had large effects on children’s perseverance,” the researchers said. They note that the great American psychologist William James observed how “voluntarily bringing back the wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will” but that he also lamented how difficult it is to teach this life skill. “The current research,” the researchers concluded, “suggests that perseverance can be taught through role play, a skill that is accessible to even very young children.” Adults too may be wondering if this is something they could try – at the very least it could provide an excuse for wearing a Batman cape to the office.

The “Batman Effect”: Improving Perseverance in Young Children

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

23 thoughts on “Pretending to be Batman helps kids stay on task”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with this research. I use a similar approach when working in Primary schools. I ask my pupils to become ‘Silent Ninjas’ when I require them to move between rooms, walk into assembly or canteen etc. A task that is normally a chatty, unstructured event is now controlled and quiet. But more importantly enjoyed by my pupils, especially when they are awarded for their good behaviour!

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    1. When I was a first-year psych student, I remember reading a research study in which inexperienced news readers imagined they were one of the top names, which helped them to perform better. At the time I was impressed by this and have since looked for this study but cannot recall the researchers’ names. If anyone can help me locate it, please get in touch. Many thanks. My email is mgpsych@yahoo.co.uk.

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  2. Is the research suggesting by ‘pretending to be someone else’ (admired super-hero) the young ppl practice skills we believe to be beneficial and this increases the likelihood of acquiring those skills – or that those skills become associated with the ‘Batman Condition’, the young participants are potentially damaged because perseverance is not acquired or ‘owned’ as theirs, but only required when doing a task ‘as if you were batman’ or as if you were a ‘Silent Ninja’?

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    1. But doing as task ‘as if” is a very valuable skill and allows you to access skills as and when you need then. Ppl who knew me, could never understand how I could in my professional career, successfully be a nurse, then a secondary school teacher, and then later, a frontline member of the criminal justice system – they saw me as too hippy/bohemian/unstructured in my everyday personal life. I used to say to them, that I simply stepped into the role as I went through the gates – and my mindset changed accordingly, to being extremely focused and on task. When you role play, the role play becomes your reality whilst it lasts, and allows you to access dormant skills and abilities. This (role playing) is also what althletes do when training …. they imagine themselves as winners to motivate themselves to aquire and access their skills, and act accordingly in training to achieve that desired effect – becoming a winner! 😀

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      1. Ooopps… being a buit ditsy, I forgot to add…..that IMHO …… it is certainly ‘ownership’ to be able to access skills and abilities when required – even if you are in effect ‘borrowing’ those skills from Batman initially, they do become incorporated into your own skillset and mindset, once they have been practised enough – albeit in the ‘dormant’ section till needed. 😀

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