On June 12th, 2018 we learned about

Students do better in school when they get frequent breaks from extended instruction

One of the best ways to help kids get more out of their time in the classroom is to spend less of that time teaching. A series of 45-minute lessons broken up by 15-minute recesses seems to have a great effect students’ concentration, enabling greater student engagement for each segment of the day. At first glance, it may sound like a ridiculous amount of time spent out on the playground, but schools in Finland, controlled studies and pilot programs in the United State all suggest that expecting kids to stay focused for hours at a time may not be worth the trouble.

Giving brains a break

In Finland, elementary students are given 15 minutes after each 45-minute lesson to head outside and take whatever kind of break they need. When the students return to the classroom, they’re generally ready to take on the next lesson without much hesitation or time spent getting everyone back on track. Because these recesses are outdoors in rain or shine, it was originally assumed that the physical activity involved was the secret to student’s concentration- that they were essentially getting their wiggles out before taking on a new task. However, experiments in classrooms in the United States found that physical exertion might not be necessary, as even breaks inside the classroom made a difference in student performance.

The key mechanic seems to be more closely tied to how our brains learn and retain new information. If running around a playground isn’t strictly necessary, it seems that simply taking a break from learning is. Various durations of lesson-time have been tested, and 45 minutes seems to be the most students can handle before their brains are essentially full. By having a short time for less-structured thought, students seem to be able to process and remember new information more easily. This mirrors the benefits of taking a nap or getting a good night’s sleep to better retain information.

Aerobics for academics

This isn’t to say that kids don’t benefit from moving around during their breaks. A separate study has found that kids with better physical fitness had more gray matter in their brains. What’s more, this increased brain volume correlated with better academic performance in school, particularly with language tasks. In particular, cortical and sub-cortical regions of the brain were larger in kids with better aerobic and motor function, although it’s not clear what mechanism is driving this boost.

In an era when American education is very concerned with test scores, rigor and notions of personal “grit,” giving kids a recess every 45 minutes may seem like a step in the wrong direction (if you choose to ignore the improved scores and behavior.) However, it may be that elementary schools adopting this schedule are simply falling in line with the adult world. Meetings, college lectures and even television shows are mostly expected to require around an hour of concentration, so really we just need to let our younger kids sync up with the demanding schedules adults make for themselves.


My third-grader asked: How long is a school day in Finland? Do they go to school all year?

While it might be intuitive for Finnish kids to make up their “lost” break time in other ways throughout the year, they don’t seem to worry about it. Schools generally start between 8:00 and 9:00 am, getting out between 1:00 to 2:00 pm. Finns also get summer and Christmas holidays, going to school around the same number of days as many American schools.  The important twist is that this schedule with only 25 hours of instruction a week seems to work really well, as Finish schools are considered to be some of the best in the world.

Source: How Kids Learn Better By Taking Frequent Breaks Throughout The Day by Timothy D. Walker, Mind/Shift

On June 10th, 2018 we learned about

Asking my kids reflect on what they get out of video games

My son, from what I’ve seen, is a decent driver. He’s only five, but he seems to be able to maneuver vehicles as large as a fire truck with minimal damage to the surrounding area. He’s only been tested on the virtual streets of Lego City Undercover, but there’s something comforting in seeing his interest in keeping fire trucks and police cruisers on the road, rather than futilely attempting to maim the endless supply of lucky bystanders. If video games offer a way to satisfy psychological needs, it’s nice to know he doesn’t need to endlessly blow things up when playing… like many of us often do.

First, I can assure you that I have yet to hit a pedestrian with my car, and never intend to. As anyone who has held a controller can attest, smashing a car into a building, or jumping on the back of a semi-malicious turtle doesn’t necessarily correspond with needing to do those things in real life. While video games do allow us to try out difficult or otherwise disruptive behavior in a safe environment, it’s been suggested that the goals and satisfaction players seek isn’t necessarily what’s being depicted on the screen.

Figuring out exactly why we play these games may not even be immediately apparent to the player themselves. If you asked someone what was so compelling about lining up colored shapes in order to make them disappear from the screen, they might not have an immediate answer. As much as some video games tap into the emotional framework of narrative fiction by letting the player feel powerful and heroic, other games certainly don’t offer that opportunity (unless I’m really underestimating the narrative and emotional impact of Candy Crush here…) To capture some of the motivations behind people’s play, researchers have developed a variety of tests and surveys, such as the Game User Experience Satisfaction Scale, or GUESS. These aim to help developers unpack why a particular game resonates with players, although it’s not a bad idea for a player to ask themselves some of these questions also.

What’s fun about driving an imaginary fire truck?

Starting a little more simply, I shared the Bartle taxonomy of player types with my kids. This framework divides players into four main groups, based on the motivation that drives them to play a game. An easy breakdown can be found in a game like Mario Kart Achievers likely want to win the race, Explorers will be happiest discovering a hidden shortcut, socializers will simply be happy to be sharing the game on the couch with friends while so-called “Killers” will just want to assert their dominance by hitting the other racers with as many shells as possible.

When thinking about games in this context, my kids found that different games appealed for different reasons. My five-year-old is likely driving his fire trucks carefully to satisfy a sense of achievement, mastering a hard task. When he gets frustrated, he might switch over to what’s called being a killer, exerting dominance over his environment by crashing that same truck into another vehicle. My nine-year-old felt that she was interested in the achievement of completing the story of Lego City Undercover, but in Minecraft she was more interested in exploring the world for secrets, then building structures that she could share with her friends and me, even though a lot of that sharing was done via elaborate, endless monologues, rather than in the game itself.

Granted, my kids’ experience has still been tightly curated, so there’s a chance they’ll gravitate towards different experiences as they grow older and can pick their own favorites. Whatever they do end up playing, I just hope that they occasionally reflect on why they’re making these choices, and maybe look to fulfill some of their less-destructive needs in real life too.

Source: How Video Games Satisfy Basic Human Needs by Simon Parkin, Nautilus

On June 6th, 2018 we learned about

Domesticated dogs’ survival depends on puppies leveraging their looks

We’re currently dog-sitting a mutt that most people think looks a bit like a ten-pound Ewok. Many onlookers seem to find his small size, button nose and large, dark eyes look pleasingly puppy-like. Just about all of our neighbors have commented on how quite the little fluffball looks on walks, although I don’t think anyone actually believes that he’s a puppy. Somehow people have a sense of what a truly young dog looks like, even to the point of finding a specific age more adorable than all the rest. It may seem like looking pleasing would only provide a benefit to human breeders, but researchers have found that peak-puppiness likely boosts dog survival rates exactly when they need the most help.

Judging the best babyfaces

In general, humans like to look at things that remind us of our own babies. This concept, called kinderschema, is so ingrained in us that adoring an infant’s chubby cheeks and bright eyes often triggers the release of hormones like oxytocin. This in turn helps us feel an emotional bond with the cute face we’re looking at, even if that face belongs to a puppy instead of our own offspring.

Researchers from Arizona State University asked test participants to rate how attractive they found photos of dogs at different ages. By limiting the photos to just a few breeds and specific poses, researchers were able to tease out which age dog triggered the strongest reactions from the 51 participating humans. They found that Jack Russell Terriers were cutest at 7.7 weeks, Cane Corsos at 6.3 weeks, and White Shepherds at 8.3 weeks old. These ages weren’t a huge surprise to researchers, because they all coincided with the age these dogs were most likely to be weaned from their mothers.

Swapping maternal care for adoring surrogates

Unlike wolves, which care for their young for around two years, domesticated dogs expect their young to be independent at around two months old. The problem is that most puppies don’t really agree with this assessment, as around 80 percent of puppies don’t survive their first year when living on their own. Rather than work on their hunting skills, dogs have been shaped to as adorably baby-faced as possible at this age, enticing humans to step in and pick up where the dogs’ mothers left off.

Figuring out exactly how this arrangement fell into place is difficult at this point, but as far as we know nobody was consciously breeding their dogs to sync up weaning with being extra cute. Nonetheless, it’s now an important part of dog survival, and it’s easy to see how this concept may even play a role in some breed’s entire life. After all, being a cat-sized Ewok-impersonator probably doesn’t impress predators or prey as well as it convinces humans to share their food and homes.

Source: Age Of Optimal Puppy Cuteness by Karen B. London PhD, Bark

On May 23rd, 2018 we learned about

The common and irrational instinct to plan on being unproductive before an appointment

Wednesday afternoons are tense in my household, thanks to a late afternoon dance class for my third grader. She’s become mortified of the prospect of being even a minute late, and thus starts prodding me to prep her hair and pick up her brother nearly an hour before the class starts. The one upside, it seems, is that her insistence has helped be break an irrational habit that most of have concerning appointments. Rather than give up on being productive ten minutes before we even leave, I actually strive to squeeze productivity out of every minute before it’s time to go.

I admit that being productive to spite my daughter’s premature nagging isn’t exactly mature, but I’m hoping that I’ll at least be able to adopt this behavior pattern to calmer moments on other days. Like most people, I’m prone to disengaging from anything useful well before I need to transition to a phone call or other scheduled activity, essentially throwing away ten minutes of the hour before my appointment. Why focus on something important when you need to mentally unwind before heading out to your next task, right?

Wasting time before artificial appointments

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s an incredibly widespread pattern. Researchers have observed people managing their time this way in both real world and experimental conditions. In fact, most us will even plan our time this way- when surveyed about a hypothetical scenario, most people felt like it was necessary to leave a ten minute “buffer” between doing something meaningful and an upcoming appointment, even if they were sitting in a lab with no appointment to actually attend.

Another experiment tracked people’s activity while they waited in a waiting room, and found that a key difference was expectations. In a five-minute period, most folks basically looked at email, websites or social media on their phones, but people who had been told they’d be doing something in five minutes engaged in fewer of these mundane activities during that time. Just knowing that something else was starting soon made it harder to even kill time, showing just how powerful a grip anticipation has on our thought processes.

To really find out much we value the “in-between” time in our schedule, volunteers were asked to participate in a task during the hour before another appointment. If they chose a 30-minute session, they’d be paid $2.50, but if they stayed 15 minutes longer for a 45-minute session, they’d receive $5.00.  While neither option really presented a conflict, earning double the money wasn’t enough of an incentive for most people to pick the 45-minute session.

Suggestions to reclaim lost time

In this context, these patterns start to sound more irrational, although they’re hard to give up. Researchers suspect that building in buffers of essentially wasted time before appointments or meetings contribute to the feeling of wasted time many of us feel after meetings in general. Scheduling meetings back-to-back might help with this, as we won’t have a chance to do nothing before each meeting, hopefully reclaiming that time in a more satisfying way elsewhere in the day. If that’s unappealing, I recommend having someone nag you about your upcoming commitment, hopefully inspiring you to reclaim every minute before it’s time to switch gears.


My third grader said: I think I do this when recess is ending at school. I go to line up before the bell rings, even though the kids who keep playing until the bell don’t end up being late. I just spend more time waiting for our teacher to bring us in.

My five-year-old said: I would do the longer test to get $5.00. Or I think I would.

Source: Why an upcoming appointment makes us less productive by Jeff Grabmeier, Phys.org

On April 23rd, 2018 we learned about

Testing if know-it-alls actually know more than the average person

Nothing elicits eye-rolling like a statement starting with “you know what your problem is…” Once someone crosses the line from confident to overconfident, it’s hard to feel anything but annoyed at what a speaker has to say. Rather dutifully, scientists posed an uncomfortable question though— what if know-it-alls, or those with “belief superiority,” truly deserved the praise they’d heap upon their own opinions? It wasn’t that scientists were looking to pat these folks on the back— they were characterized as people who already felt they knew more than other people, after all. The hope was that if know-it-alls actually did know more than their peers, then maybe we could all learn some of the techniques they employed to gain that knowledge, possibly making learning easier for everyone.

Know-it-alls don’t know better

For better or for worse, it turned out that society’s low opinion of belief-superior people was right all along. When quizzed on topics they claimed to have a special mastery of, know-it-alls didn’t actually know as much as they’d claim, demonstrating no special grasp of information at all. Conversely, people who spoke more humbly of their knowledge often performed better than they predicted.

The over-inflated opinions of belief-superior people seems related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, wherein people who don’t know how limited their knowledge is greatly overestimate their mastery of a topic. However, a second phase of this experiment found an important wrinkle in that model. Even though belief-superior people didn’t show any advantage in their knowledge, researchers still tested how they seek out new information. When offered six sources of information on a topic, know-it-alls tended to purposely pick sources that they thought would agree with their own opinions. This indicates that they knew other ideas existed, but seemed to prefer hearing their own “expertise” echoed back to them.

More than mere opinions

Some of this may not be the know-it-all’s fault. Other studies have previously looked at how even average people react to opinions contrary to their own on neurological level. By monitoring brain activity in an fMRI, researchers found that ideas that conflicted with test participant’s opinions were processed by the brain like physical threats. This may help explain why simply being exposed to contrasting opinions doesn’t change minds very easily; in at least one experiment, contrary opinions actually reinforced readers’ original viewpoints, pushing them towards political extremes. Belief-superiority doesn’t require an extreme viewpoint, of course, but all these factors may help explain why overconfident beliefs can feel so insufferable.

Source: Scientists Tested How Much Know-It-Alls Actually Know, And The Results Speak For Themselves by Futurity, Science Alert

On April 15th, 2018 we learned about

Staged speeches find nuances in the stressful side of seeing smiles

A smile is supposed to always be a sign of good news, but that may be biased towards the person doing the smiling. A big grin communicates a smiler’s happiness, boosts their mood and may convince them of other people’s happiness as well. On the other hand, while nobody wants to be scowled at, it turns out that people don’t always find it pleasant to be on the receiving end of a happy face. Depending on context, someone else’s smile can even be a source of stress.

Aside from the uncontrollable grin you have in response to personal enjoyment, there are three major types of social smiles. These smiles may be tied to a person’s impression of an event, but are largely meant to communicate a message to another individual. As their name indicates, rewarding smiles are meant to provide positive feedback to someone, encouraging their activity. Affiliation smiles are meant to build relationships, or at least show an attempt to relate to another individual. Dominant smiles are the least friendly of the three, as they’re sort of a passive aggressive way to remind someone of the smiler’s social superiority.

How friendly are those faces?

It’s not hard to imagine which of these smiles is the most pleasant to receive, but researchers needed to quantify the effects of these social interactions before they could draw conclusions about how they work. As a test, volunteers were asked to give a short speech, then shown reactions from “judges” via video. Judges were actually prerecorded, and were really just there to flash different types of smiles to the test participants so that their levels of the stress hormone cortisol could be measured. In every case, cortisol levels went up in the test participants, even when seeing a rewarding smile. However, the dominant smile triggered the biggest response, raising cortisol levels three-times higher than other facial expressions.

The fact that a dominant smile was unconsciously perceived as slightly threatening may not be surprising. There was an odd twist with test participants that suffered from social anxiety disorders or depression though. The type of smile didn’t seem to make much of a difference to these people one way or the other. Being less responsive to unwanted dominant smiles may sound like a benefit, but this suggests that these emotional disorders may limit people’s responsiveness to any social signals.

Source: The condescending smiles of others stress us out by Kimberly Hickok, Science

On February 27th, 2018 we learned about

Misleading successes don’t derail kids’ long-term learning

Our brains love getting positive feedback, which can have its drawbacks. Parents and teachers grapple with finding the balance between rewarding kids for getting things “right” while also trying to show appreciation for the effort a kid put into getting their answer. The concern isn’t that kids need to be propped up emotionally, but that rewarding results may overemphasize products of process while also reducing any intrinsic satisfaction the kid had from doing a good job. If that weren’t enough to consider, researchers from the University of Cambridge raised another possible issue with rewarding results— what if kids are rewarded for the wrong result and end up “learning” something that wasn’t true in the first place?

Familiar physics

In the case of the Cambridge study, the kids were supposed to be learning about physics. Our earliest physics lessons usually start when we’re babies, repeated dropping a cup on the floor or just throwing toys around a room, and so the idea that kids might have some baseline understanding of how objects interact was quite reasonable. However, a baby that’s only paying attention to the result of their action might not be learning about the nuances of how the cup fell, or toy flew, which wouldn’t really prepare them to deal with unusual results in the future. Again, too much focus on the product of an activity might diminish the importance of the process.

The actual experiment involved four- to 11-year-olds, asking them to get a token floating in a narrow tube. As in Aesop’s fable of the crow and the pitcher, the tube has a small amount of water in the bottom, but the water level is too low for the token to be accessible. The test is then if kids will pick heavy or floating objects to drop into the tube in order to displace the water to raise the water level, and token, to the top. It’s something crows have actually figured out, but in this case researchers complicated the kids efforts by secretly breaking the physics involved.

Earlier experiences vs. recent rewards

The tubes were either set to secretly drain or fill, allowing the water level to seemingly “respond” incorrectly to the kids’ efforts. For instance, heavy objects that should have raised the water were made to have no effect when the water was secretly drained away at the same time. Buoyant objects that shouldn’t displace much water were made to have the opposite effect, as water was pumped into the tube as if those objects were helping. Essentially, their success was suddenly tied to bad information, giving researchers a way to see how much that result (and accompanying sticker rewards) would influence the kids’ thinking in the future.

After kids had been “trained” on misleading tubes, they were given a chance to repeat the test with a normal tube. Happily, researchers concerns about the power of reward were a little overstated, as kids seemed to greatly value their previous experience with real-world physics over their recent, misleading reward. Younger kids were thrown off by the fake physics a little more, but kids as young as seven seemed to already be reliant on their long-term experience with physics instead of simply recreating how they last earned a sticker.


My eight-year-old said: I’m proud of those seven-year-olds for getting it right!

My five-year-old said: Yay five-year-olds!

Source: Young children use physics, not previous rewards, to learn about tools by University of Cambridge, Phys.org

On February 8th, 2018 we learned about

Forced perspective fakes sizes and spaces by manipulating a structure’s proportions

It may seem redundant to point out that something in Disneyland is fake, but on a recent trip to the theme park my family was surprised to “discover” visual tricks hidden right in front of us. While the robotic pirates and dancing cartoon characters may be obvious, an architectural concept known as forced perspective manipulates our perception of space in a more subtle way, particularly in its application on Disney’s “Main Street, USA.” It’s a trick that Disney is said to have borrowed from film-makers in Hollywood, but its use extends all the way back to architecture in ancient Greece, not to mention some really tall depictions of people.

Building smaller to look big

Forced perspective is a series of small adjustments a designer can make to create the perception that a space is larger or smaller than it really is. It taps into our brains’ understanding of how parallel lines seem to converge at a distance, and how objects appear smaller when they’re further away. In Disneyland, this means that structures are made to look taller by making their upper extremities smaller, giving the illusion that they’re extending further away from a viewer’s eye than they really are.

There are many examples of this kind of design, many of which are right at the front of the park. Buildings are made to look like they’re three stories tall, but the second and third “floors” are reduced in scale by 3/8 and 1/2 respectively. The Matterhorn has full-sized trees at its base, with smaller model trees higher up to imply a soaring peak. The castle at the center of the park has small upper floors, and thanks to strategic angling on the buildings leading up to it, looks further away, and therefore bigger, than it really is when you first see it.

Faking and fixing ancient architecture

This kind of deception certainly didn’t originate in Anaheim or Hollywood. An example of many of these concepts can be found in the Palazzo Spada in Rome. Architect Francesco Borromini didn’t have room to build the traditional 100-foot-long hallway and colonnade in the palace, so he did the math to figure out what adjustments were needed to make a 26-foot-long hallway appear nearly four times longer than it really was. The tiles in the floor were carefully sized to appear further away. The floor is actually on an incline to imply more depth. Finally, a sculpture that appears to be the size of an adult at the far end of the hall is actually the size of a child, all to create the illusion of a full-length building. All together, it’s an aggressive set of adjustments that make the space look bigger, at least until you try to walk down the hall.

The ancient Greeks employed some similar ideas, but for slightly different effect. With a building like the Parthenon, the goal wasn’t to use forced perspective to make the structure look larger than reality, but to fix what perspective normally does to a large building. Regularly spaced columns, for instance, don’t look regularly spaced when viewed at once. So the Greeks made the columns in the Parthenon wider apart at the corners and closer together in the middle. This way, a viewer looking at one side of the building would see what appears to be a perfectly regular pattern of columns. The columns themselves were adjusted as well, being tilted and made wider in the middle, all so that they appeared to look straight and even when viewed from below.

Resizing statues

That viewing angle doesn’t only matter to buildings, but sculptures as well. Large sculptures, from Michelangelo’s David to the Statue of Liberty, are often created with the understanding that their relative height to the viewing audience will make the heads and shoulders look “too” small. To undo this effect of perspective, these sculptures’ have unnaturally large heads and shoulders so that they would look “right” to someone looking up at them from the ground. In an era of zoom lenses, drone-mounted cameras and more, this may seem a bit arcane, but may help explain why seeing something in person can be so much better than photo or video reproductions.

Source: Forced Perspective in Architecture by Christopher Muscato, Study.com

On January 17th, 2018 we learned about

Science scrutinizes what factors make for a superior smile

My third-grader has mastered her publicity smile. While she isn’t posting selfies anywhere yet, she’s apparently put some work into making sure she has a camera-ready grin. I realize that, as her parent, I probably carry some biases about her appearance, but fortunately scientists around the world have been working to figure out what a truly optimal smile looks like. Crafting a smile isn’t risk-free though, as research has also found a few downsides in even the most beaming grin.

Perfect mouth position

As many of us have found out the hard way, not all smiles are created equal. How much a person opens their mouth or exposes their teeth can make greatly change how that smile is received by onlookers. To really parse which combination of mouth-shapes matter, researchers from the University of Minnesota surveyed people with images of an artificial head so that the other features could remain consistent while the smile was tweaked and adjusted in small ways. What they found was that a wide smile is judged as attractive if the teeth don’t show, a more open smile looks good if the mouth isn’t stretched wide, and a “medium” smile is pretty safe with teeth, no teeth, or something in between. To be more specific, the best-rated grins had a mouth angled between 13 and 17 degrees at the corners, with a width between 55 and 62 percent the distance between the eyes.

Before you worry about pulling out a ruler the next time you see a camera, it should be noted that these measurements don’t tell the full story. Cultural differences, asymmetrical features and the expression in your eyes can all influence how a smile will be received. The context of your smile counts too, since what’s a great smile on vacation might not be so winning at work.

Friendly but flakey?

A second study looked at how prospective clients view smiles of an agent they’d like to hire for different tasks. Overall, broader smiles were judged as being warmer, which may be great for someone working as a customer service agent. People with jobs that involved potential risk, like surgeons or investment advisers, were penalized if they had a large smile. They were still seen as warm, but also less competent than competition who looked more reserved.

The appearance of age

That broad, warm smile may also misrepresent your age. A third study found that participants all felt positively about images of smiling people, but they surprisingly also expected them to be older than they were. Despite what participants expected of how a facial expression might affect appearances, looking surprised was apparently the best way to look younger, probably because a wide-eyed gasp helps hide wrinkles, while a solid smile adds some friendly crinkles around the eyes and mouth.

Smiling after stealing

This may seem like a lot of pressure for something as simple as a photo, but the highest stakes for your smile may be tied to social competition. Researchers at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies had test participants play a simple game, where they could either compete or cooperate with a partner to win money. For each round of the game, players chose to either split the money or steal it. If both agreed to split the money, they did exactly that. If one chose steal, they got all the money, and if both chose steal, both players received nothing.

If one player successfully stole the money, the facial expressions of both players were found to greatly influence the next round of play. A smiling victor would almost certainly drive the loser to choose “steal” on next, apparently as a way get retribution for the previous loss. However, if the loser smiled, it would act as an instant peace treaty, and the both players would be more likely to “split” the next round of the game.

Nodding seems nice

With this many nuances and consequences being attached to a simple smile, it’s fair to be hoping for a tip on just feeling less self-conscious about your facial expressions. Fortunately, researchers in Japan may have a handy shortcut to boosting how likeable and approachable you look. Just nodding your head up and down, as when you’re agreeing to something, was found to improve a virtual human’s likability by 30 percent. Better yet, when the figure shook it’s head “no,” its likeability wasn’t penalized in viewers’ eyes, meaning you don’t even have to worry about saying “yes” to every question you encounter. These results were looking at a female face with Japanese viewers only, so they might not be shared by people around the world. But a friendly nod coupled with a moderate smile seems like practical enough formula to aim for the next time you need to make a good impression.

Source: A winning smile avoids showing too many teeth, researchers say by Nicola Davis, The Guardian

On January 8th, 2018 we learned about

Dressing up as heroes helps kids keep their distance from tempting distractions

Batman stared at the screen, his eyes starting to glaze over. He’d been working for what felt like an eternity, but knew he had to resist the tempting trap his nemesis had left for him. A purple and green iPad, conspicuously placed next to the computer so that Batman couldn’t possibly miss it. Despite the relief and mystery promised by the device, Batman knew he couldn’t give up on his work. He only had a few more minutes before it’d all be over…

Researchers have found that, unfortunately, even Batman, or a child emulating him, can’t resist temptation for long. A study looking at the perseverance of four- to six-year-olds actually found that nobody can resist an iPad for too long, especially if it’s loaded with games. However, by getting helping kids establish different mental contexts for themselves, such as pretending to be Batman, researchers found that kids can extend the limits of their self-control.

In this experiment, 180 kids were all asked to work at an intentionally dull task for ten minutes in a room by themselves. That might be tough on its own, but to really test kids’ self-control, an iPad was left for them as well, creating a strong temptation to give up on their boring assignment. The iPad eventually grabbed the attention of every participant, but the prompts each child was given before and during the ten-minute test period made a big difference in how long kids could stay on task.

Strategies to stick with a tiresome task

While every child had been told that the boring task was important, the first group was also instructed to ask themselves if they felt they were working hard as time progressed. That question wasn’t terribly inspiring, and these kids spent more time, over six minutes, using the iPads instead of doing their work. The second group of kids was told to do the same thing, but from a third-person perspective. Instead of asking “am I working hard,” they needed to ask “is [child’s name] working hard?” This strategy is called “self-distancing,” based on the idea that if kids could mentally remove themselves from the situation, and the probably enjoyment of the iPad in particular, it would be easier to ignore that temptation.

The third group not only did some “self-distancing,” but were told to adopt a whole other person’s persona while they worked. Kids were prompted to emulate Batman, Rapunzel, Dora the Explorer, or Bob the Builder, then given a costume piece to help them really get into their role. While they worked, they were reminded to ask “Is Batman working hard?” to which the answer was often (but not always) “yes!” Unfortunately, the experiment didn’t offer a fourth round of characters that were more neutral in the kids eyes (“Is Mommy’s coworker working hard?”) so it’s hard to say how much of the increased focus was due to emulating a character’s imagined work-ethic, and how much was the self-distancing effect. However, since even speaking of one’s self in the third-person made some improvements in kids’ work-times, it’s safe to assume that getting out of one’s own shoes helped keep the iPads out of kids’ hands.


My third-grader asked: Did they do this with older kids? I would have wanted them to ask us to be Harry Potter.

The kids were between ages four and six, which was pretty significant. The six-year-olds naturally did better on the boring task, holding out for five minutes on average, versus the two-and-a-half minutes four-year-olds worked.

Also, Harry Potter? Not Hermione, the hardest working character in the Potterverse? Really?

Source: New research finds that kids aged 4-6 perform better during boring tasks when dressed as Batman by Jenny Anderson, World Economic Forum