How does the “Batman Effect” help kids to work harder?

Everybody has a mindless task they can’t stand doing. Sorting paperwork. Washing dishes. Catching the Joker. It turns out little kids tend to stick to their boring tasks better if they are pretending they are Batman.

Yes, the “Batman effect” is real, and it might be the best way to encourage your kids to develop a sense of responsibility and willingness to work. A team of psychologists led by Rachel White and “grit” expert Angela Duckworth set out to explore several possible ways that a child might think about work, and discover which are the most effective.

The researchers recruited 180 kids between the ages of 4 and 6, and split them up into three groups. One group was encouraged to think of themselves in the third person and ask questions like “Is Billy working hard?” One group asked themselves, “Am I working hard?” And the third group was assigned a fictional identity such as Bob the Builder, Dora the Explorer, Rapunzel, or Batman, and asked about their work in the third-person: “Is Batman working hard?”

Finally, all of the children were given a job: click the computer screen when they see a piece of cheese and don’t click when they see a cat. They were encouraged to work on it as long as possible, but were also told that they could leave to play a game at any time. And as it turned out, the little Batman cosplayers worked the longest.

But why does pretending to be Batman, specifically, encourage hard work? Researchers can’t say for sure, but they think it’s a combination of factors. First, there’s his recognizability — everybody knows Batman, and no one wants to disappoint him. Second is his reputation. He’s kind of known for always working hard and trying his best. And third, a fictional persona helped the Caped Crusader kids distance themselves from the boring task.

So if there’s a kid in your life that could stand to get their hands dirtier around the house, you might want to try helping them into the mindset of their favorite cartoon hero. That’s especially important, says MacArthur Genius grant winner Angela Duckworth, because “grit” is far more important than IQ. So the sooner that you can start developing a kid’s ability to power through hardship, the better. It’s all about putting in that effort and maintaining the focus. Even for kids.

Check out my related post:

Should we all go back to thinking like children?

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