Acting as Batman makes children brilliant

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Studies show pretending to be a role model such as Batman (or any other person with skills) can improve children’s executive functions and adaptability in life. This is the Batman Effect.

Pretending to be Batman, as a form of pretend play, can enhance children's cognitive functioning for math and other complex subjects. Pretend play also improves adaptability in real life. Click To Tweet

Let’s take a simple example of children not wanting to do math because it feels boring and confusing. To get children to do more and better math and motivate them, you can ask them to act like “Batman”, a superhero, who needs to solve problems.

Researchers Rachel E. White and Stephanie M. Carlson[1] asked children to role-play Batman and saw that children’s performance on cognitive tests improved. In their study, 3 and 5-year-old children did cognitive tasks across 4 “self-distancing” conditions. Self-distancing means adding psychological distance to separate oneself from their perception of themselves. This was done with 3 methods and compared with a control. Some children were asked to refer to themselves by their “name” which slightly creates a 3rd-person point of view about themselves. Some were asked to think of themselves as themselves, which is no self-distance. And some were asked to role-play Batman. Each of these conditions creates a gradation of self-distancing.

The researchers saw that as self-distance increased, cognitive scores went up. Between 3 and 5-year-olds, only 5 year old’s showed an improvement in their score. The study’s authors think that the bump in score comes from a child’s ability to think of other points of view, which is hardly present at 3 years of age, but dramatically improves by 5. This is the theory of mind feature of the brain which is supposed to give us empathy and allow us to simulate the outside world. Adding psychological distance also dilutes emotions by separating the mind from emotions themselves. Think of self-distancing as seeing yourself “zoomed-out” – granular emotions disappear as you zoom out and you start taking a big-picture view of yourself.

Back to the example of math… This means… By role-playing Batman, the child’s mindset[2] changes to what they think Batman would do. They will then approach math like a superhero strategist who has to do the math. In the process, they will also psychologically distance themselves from math[3] and experience less math anxiety.

The Batman Effect: Pretending to be Batman gives children a cognitive boost by adopting an imagined Batman’s skillset and behaving in ways Batman would.

The general idea is that self-distancing (pretending to be someone else) and adopting a role-model persona help children modify their behavior and approach to problems by first separating themselves from the problem. And if the role model is supposed to have great executive functions, the child will demonstrate better executive functions.

Self-distancing brings us to a very fascinating concept called “construal levels“. And in my opinion, it is one of the coolest “gateway” to creative thinking.

Another layer of explanation is that children’s executive functions can be blocked or limited by getting “personally” involved in a task. So distancing reduces that blocking. This is most commonly seen as an interference of emotion with cognition. A child who is emotionally engaged with a task is likely to perform a task with a certain amount of cognitive ability. Remove that emotion and the cognitive ability changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Executive functions, which were tested in the original study, are the brain’s “higher order” cognitive functions that allow us to pay attention, solve problems, reason, implement logic through memory, hold information in memory, analyze, and behave in a goal-directed way. Executive functions are one of the strongest contributors to intellectual and everyday growth. Without them, humans can’t really adapt to the environment. Executive functions start developing early in life and grow rapidly before the age of 10. This is a prime time to leverage the Batman effect.

Photo by Emmanuel Denier[4] on Unsplash[5]

The other side of this effect is perseverance – or the ability to work through difficulties. In another study by Rachel E. White and Emily O. Prager[6], who coined the Batman effect, 4 to 6-year-old children role-playing Batman showed higher engagement in a boring repetitive task even when the children were given an alternative to play an addictive video game. In the study, children were given a 10-minute-long repetitive task. They had the option to take breaks and play a game. Children were asked to take 1 of 3 perspectives. Thinking of themselves as Batman, thinking of themselves in the 3rd person (watching yourself do the work), or thinking of themselves in the first person (I am myself doing this task). Those who pretended to be Batman, stayed on the task longest, followed by the 3rd person POV and then the 1st person POV.

Take the example of studying math or a very boring topic. A lot of children find it difficult or scary because it feels complex or too unstimulating. Distancing themselves by pretending to be someone else like Batman can help them persevere and do the work even when they don’t feel like it. Distancing gives new purpose and changes the emotions around a task. This strategy of distancing yourself and taking on a 3rd person’s POV[7] reduces anxiety in adults too.

The Batman effect is an extension of a very common human behavior called pretend play.[8]

Have you seen animals play fight? Dogs biting, cats pawing. Researchers speculate that animals play fight to learn complex movements and refine them in low-risk situations, so they have them mastered as adult animals. So 2 cats having a paw-off would refine their pawing skills for their real-world life.

Humans have a slightly different story. Humans have very long immaturity periods. To understand just how immature, compare human babies to many animal babies. Animal babies often begin surviving in the wild within a few months. Humans, on the other hand, need years of caregiving. Left to the elements without adult supervision for 5 years, we’d just die. Humans are so slow in their development that they actually learn about risks and consequences only after around the 20s when the prefrontal cortex fully develops[9]. In short, humans are dependent and reckless for a long time.

In this process of brain maturation[10], the mechanisms that allow adults to make sense of the world get rehearsed in childhood through pretend play, when the risk is low. It lets human toddlers learn about the world through imagination and pretending unreal things are real. Pretend fighting, is about rehearsing and learning movements. Pretend play, which we do, is about learning cause-effect relationships through trial and error. So, for complex problems, where cause-effect is important, or confusing, the child uses imagination to uncover the rules and assumptions of the problem as if it’s a game in which they are the main character.

Researchers say that pretend-playing lets the child’s mind “obey” logic. For example, if a child is told that a duck walked across the clean floor with muddy feet, the child would conclude that the floor would not have been muddy if the duck wore clean boots.

So in the Batman effect, the rules and behaviors of Batman would apply. Who is Batman? A resourceful, smart, strategic, and daring superhero. When a child pretends to be Batman, the child will apply the rules of that imagination to their own problem-solving – as a resourceful, smart, strategic, daring superhero.

The Galatea effect is another effect that works alongside the Batman effect. The effect says our performance is proportional to our expectations of our performance. Expect low, performance drops. Expect high, performance improves. If a child expects Batman to do better than them, performance should really improve. This is a practical way to boost a child’s confidence or work through performance anxiety.

A parent can identify if a child has anxiety about a particular topic at school. It’s often mathematics! The parent can then ask the child to pretend to be a superhero and adopt the hero’s mindset to solve math problems. This does 2 things that help the child – adopt a “skillset” that the hero would have and then expect their pretended version to succeed. Both will eventually get the child to engage with math.

Let’s go Beyond Batman. (IYKYK)

Any superhero can work in this situation. Even a celebrity can work. For the effect to show up, the imagined persona should meet 2 criteria.

  1. The child (or adult) is familiar with their skills, characteristics, and point of view
  2. The character shows confidence in solving those kinds of problems

Imagine another character like Garfield. Will there be a Garfield effect the way we have the Batman effect? Chances are that a child will approach a math problem the way Garfield would – not do it or crib about it.

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What about Spiderman? Chances are pretending to be Batman leads to a very strategic approach, but pretending to be Spiderman leads to a very fast, improvisation approach. Because that’s how Spiderman is – dive into trouble and then save himself. Batman, on the other hand, plans everything and prepares for everything.

The moral of the story is – learn from Batman and be Batman. 🙂

Pushing agendas aside…

Although not extensively studied, the Batman effect should be a general principle. For example, pretending to be a scientist can help a child learn science better. Role-play is a powerful tool to learn, particularly for children. One study[11] shows that 4 to 7-year-old girls pretending to be Marie Curie, an iconic role model of a female scientist, engaged in a science activity for a longer duration than those who did not pretend to be her.

Researchers recorded[12] 31 4th to 8th-grade girls’ math and language achievement in school and their divergent thinking ability (related to creativity). Researchers hypothesized that the amount of imagination in pretend play will lead to better academic achievement over a 4-year span. After analysis, children who did high-quality pretend play 4 years ago had better divergent thinking and mathematical ability.

Some may say it is a fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy. And it is. But it contains no deception. Like other fake-it-till-you-make-it approaches such as smiling or affirming your confidence, this is adopting a persona to change one’s behavior according to that persona. It’s particularly helpful when you fake being a role model.

Pretending to be someone is not just about learning. It also increases empathy in a very rudimentary sense. In fact, the ability to pretend to be someone else might be the very source of empathy. Humans have a “theory of mind” and children as young as 3 years old develop it. The theory of mind comes from a network of neurons that allow people to “model” other people and adopt their point of view by activating that model. Research grounded in theory confirms[13] that children learn to process emotions and adapt to the world through pretend play.

Speaking of pretending to be someone else to improve performance, pretending to practice can also improve performance. This is the story of “visualizations”, which I tell in this article.

P.S. BatmanTM is a trademark of DC Comics. This article does not imply any ownership or licensing of the trademark.

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