Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

A new study explored whether using the psychological technique of self-distancing could increase young children’s grit and perseverance. Perseverance is the ability to self-regulate, avoid distraction and stick to one’s goals and intentions. Some of us develop perseverance in our earlier school years, some do so in our adolescence or young adulthood, and for some, perseverance is a lifelong challenge.

Obviously, the earlier one can begin honing this vital skill the better. However, very young children are notoriously bad at tuning out distractions, making perseverance a tricky quality for them to master.

Now, a new study demonstrated that using the psychological technique of self-distancing, children aged 4 and 6 were able to persevere for significantly longer—especially when Batman and Dora the Explorer were added into the mix. Here’s why:

Self-distancing involves shifting to a third-person point of view and thinking of yourself from an outsider perspective. This shift to a third person perspective is not just a cognitive one. Self-distancing also distances us emotionally from our experience of the moment, and by doing so, gives us a greater ability to self-regulate, which is crucial for perseverance.

In the current study, 4 and 6 year olds were asked to complete a boring sorting task on the computer. They were told that if they need a break they could play a fun game on a provided iPad. The scientists wanted to see how long the children persevered on the boring task versus taking breaks on the iPad.

They divided the children into three groups. In the control group, the kids were asked to think of their thoughts and feelings during the task and ask themselves, “Am I working hard?” In the third-person condition children were asked to think of their own name and ask, “Is [their name] working hard?” In the third group, children were given the option to choose between Batman, Dora the Explorer, Bob the Builder, and Rapunzel. They were then given a prop associated with the character and were told to ask themselves. “Is Batman (or whichever character they chose) working hard?”

Children who used their name in a third-person perspective persevered significantly longer at the boring task than children who used a first-person perspective. But children in the third group who used a character third-person perspective persevered significantly longer than both the first and the second group. Sadly, no detail was given as to which of the four characters was associated with the greatest degree of perseverance (*cough* Batman!).

The study concluded that taking an outsider’s perspective improves perseverance because self-distancing creates a separation from our internal experience which then allows us to disengage (somewhat) from immediate temptations, distractions or negative emotions. For young children, identifying with a known character’s positive qualities can provide an extra boost of grit, which is why it could be useful to allow them to dress up when doing homework or practicing a skill.

However, given how strongly young children identify with known characters, parents should make sure their kids choose the right character for the situation at hand. For example, while Batman and Dora might facilitate perseverance on a challenging or boring task, the highly distracted Dory might not.

Copyright 2017 Guy Winch

References

White, R. E., Prager, E. O., Schaefer, C., Kross, E., Duckworth, A. L. and Carlson, S. M. (2016), The “Batman Effect”: Improving Perseverance in Young Children. Child Dev. doi:10.1111/cdev.12695

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