The tennis ball hits the net for the fifth time in a row. You are discouraged and want to give up. But then you picture Serena Williams serving the ball flawlessly over the net. You picture her form, her swing, the racket’s contact with the ball, and her follow through. Thinking about how Serena would handle the situation gives you the motivation you need to keep trying until you are finally successful. This strategy of taking a step back from the problem you were having with your serve and reflecting on ways you could change your technique to serve the ball successfully is an example of the “Batman Effect.” Researchers have studied this strategy with young children by having them use role-play during challenging tasks to help improve their performance.  

Previous Research on the Batman Effect

The Batman Effect refers to the finding that children perform better on a challenging task if they pretend to be someone else, such as Batman, who would be good at the task.1,2 Previous studies have shown that children who pretend to be a competent media character persist longer on boring tasks and perform better on executive function (EF) tasks than children who think about themselves from a first-person perspective.1,2 Taking the perspective of a person more competent than themselves allows children to reflect on the problem and think about it from different angles. It creates “psychological distance” or mental space between themselves and the challenging task and helps them imagine a role model. Although previous research suggests that the Batman Effect is a useful strategy, it has been largely unknown whether it is more useful for some children than for others.  

Recent Study on Who Benefits Most from the Batman Effect

In one of our recent studies, we answered this question by inviting 139 4- and 6-year-olds to our lab at the University of Minnesota. We wanted to see if role play would be helpful for children to manage feelings of frustration. So how did we frustrate them? We locked a toy inside a clear box and gave them a large set of keys to try to find the one that would open the box. And here’s the tricky part: Although children believed that the key ring contained the right key, in reality, it did not have a single key that would open the box. Frustrating indeed! Children were given up to 10 minutes or until they decided they were done trying to work on unlocking the box. During the task, we measured how frustrated children were and how well they were able to regulate their frustration. Before working on the task, children were given instructions to think about their thoughts and feelings from different perspectives. Children in the self-immersed group were asked to think about their thoughts and feelings during the task using first-person speech (e.g., “How am I feeling?”). Children in the third-person group were asked to think about their thoughts and feelings using their name (e.g., How is [child’s name] feeling?). Children in the exemplar group were asked to pick a popular media character (e.g., Batman, Dora the Explorer, Rapunzel, or Bob the Builder) and given a prop to help them get into character (e.g., cape, backpack, tiara, or tool belt). These children were then asked to think about how the character they chose would think and feel (e.g., “How is Batman feeling?). Our goal in this study was to figure out if certain children would find it more helpful to pretend to be a media character than others. To do this, we looked at differences in children’s EF skills, the brain-based skills that are used to control one’s thoughts and feelings to accomplish goals. Would children with higher EF skills or children who struggle the most with EF benefit more from this strategy?

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Indeed, we did find evidence that some children benefitted more from using this strategy than others. Children with lower EF skills were significantly more frustrated when asked to think about their own, self-immersed perspective than when they were asked to imagine how Batman (or another character) would be feeling during the frustrating task. These findings suggest that the Batman Effect may be most effective for children with lower EF skills, especially during a task that requires them to regulate their emotions.

This graphic shows the difference in frustration levels for children with lower executive function skills (EF) in the self-immersed and exemplar groups. We measured children’s frustration on a scale of one to three with three being the most frustrated. Children in the self-immersed group were significantly more frustrated than children in the exemplar group. Pretending to be a competent character helped “cool down” the task for children with lower EF.

 What can we take away from this recent study?

This study is important because it suggests that using role-play can help improve children’s emotion regulation and it is especially beneficial for children with lower EF. This strategy may be more useful for children with lower EF because they may need the extra support that the “Batman Effect” provides more than children with higher EF, who might already have skills to manage their feelings. These results are consistent with the saying that “one size does not fit all” and highlights the importance of personalizing intervention strategies for children depending on their needs. Based on this study, it seems essential to consider a child’s level of EF skills when choosing an intervention strategy.

Having your children pretend to be a competent media character is an easy strategy you can use when they want to give up on a difficult task. For example, the next time your child wants to quit when working on a challenging jigsaw puzzle or refuses to pick up their toys after playing, you might try suggesting they pretend to be someone else, like Batman. This suggestion will not only make the activity more fun, but might also help them gain more self-control and tenacity!

To read the full research article, click here.

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  1. White, R.E., & Carlson, S.M. (2016). What would Batman do? Self-distancing improves executive function in young children. Developmental Science, 19 (3), 1-8.
  2. White, R.E., Prager, E.O., Schaefer, C., Kross, E., Duckworth, A.L., & Carlson, S.M. (2017). Child Development, 88(5), 1563-1571.

Additional Resources

About the Author:

Amanda Grenell is currently earning her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Institute of Child Development. Her primary research interests include how pretend play can be a context for children to learn new information and to practice their executive function skills and the role that executive function plays in learning. She has been involved in research evaluation projects with several community organizations such as the Minnesota Children’s Museum and the Children’s Theatre Company.

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