Two research studies support the notion that pretending to be a capable character helps children act more capably. In one study, 5-year-old children were asked to perform a tricky card sorting task. Some of the children were first told to imagine they were a powerful person, like Batman or Dora the Explorer, and even permitted to put on a cape or backpack to get into the role. The children who pretended to be a powerful person did significantly better on the sorting task than children who did not.
In the second study, 4- and 6-year-old children were asked to work on a boring computer task but were told they could take breaks when they needed to by playing a more fun game on a tablet. Half of the children were directed to ask themselves, “Am I working hard?” The other half of the children dressed up like Batman, Dora, or another fictional character and were directed to ask themselves, “Is Batman [or whoever they were pretending to be] working hard?” Children stuck with the boring task significantly more if they were pretending to be a powerful character than if they were just being themselves.
Th researcher then asked children to think of themselves as Batman [or whoever] “on a terrible day.” These children wore costume props that were worn or broken. Children pretending to be a diminished superhero performed worse than children who were not imagining themselves to be struggling.
While these studies may not relieve all our concerns about superhero or princess play, they do demonstrate that “fake it till you make it” works even for preschoolers. Believing one can be successful is the first step to achieving success.
Find out more: Rachel E. White and Stephanie M. Carlson (2015). What would Batman do? Self-distancing improves executive function in young children. Developmental Science, 19(3), 419–426 (abstract at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/desc.12314/abstract). Also: Rachel E. White, Emily O. Prager, Catherine Schaefer, Ethan Kross, Angela L. Duckworth, Stephanie M. Carlson (2016). The “Batman Effect”: Improving perseverance in young children. Child Development, 88(5), 1563–1571 (abstract at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cdev.12695/abstract).