Field Notes

Is Bob the Builder working hard?

Role play and the benefits children derive from play have always interested Assistant Professor of Psychology Rachel White, who did her senior thesis at Wellesley College on the relationships that kids create with imaginary friends. As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, White focused on how play and imagination can improve self-control in children.

Cue Batman, Dora the Explorer, Bob the Builder and Rapunzel.

White’s study, “The ‘Batman Effect’: Improving Perseverance in Young Children,” found that when children were asked to complete a task, the ones who spent the most time working on it were the children who impersonated a character such as Bob the Builder or Rapunzel from the movie Tangled. The study, for which White was lead co-author, was published in December in the journal Child Development and has received other media attention.

The study looked at how “self-distancing,” or taking an outsider’s view of one’s own situation, may benefit children’s perseverance. Four-year-olds and 6-year-olds in the study were asked to be a “good helper” by completing a boring task. But they also were told they could take breaks from the task to play a video game.

Children were divided into three groups. Members of one group were told to reflect on their own thoughts and feelings and then ask themselves, “Am I working hard?” Children in a second group were told to ask the question using their own names, for instance, Brian would ask himself, “Is Brian working hard?” Members of the third group were asked to select and identify with one of four characters — Batman, Dora the Explorer, Bob the Builder or Rapunzel — and were given a prop to dress up as that character. They were told to ask, “Is Dora (or whichever character they picked) working hard?” That group had the greatest perseverance of the three.

White says it will take more study to determine why the costumed kids did the best at sticking to the task, but she offers a couple of different, and overlapping, possibilities. Theory suggests that the further a person can get from his or her own point of view, the more rational the person may be — self-distancing. Another possibility is that the children may have taken on the characteristics of the character they impersonated. And it could be a little of both.

White is working on figuring that out. She and some of her students will be conducting more research this summer related to the Batman study.

“We’re curious about whether this strategy could be useful in other situations as well,” she says, “so one thing we’re planning to look into is how taking on another perspective could help children regulate their emotions.”

Tracing the path of medieval fake news

He was both king and priest, a mighty and pious Christian who commanded armies upon armies in a country were the rivers ran with gems. Guests at his palace would dine at an emerald table that could seat 30,000 men. He was the world’s most powerful ruler — Prester John.

Illustration of Prester JohnOr so goes the story goes. Associate Professor of History John Eldevik has received two prestigious awards to delve into the legend of Prester John and a letter purportedly written by him. It was actually a bit of medieval fake news.

The word “prester” is derived from the Latin word “presbyter,” meaning priest, and the fictional Prester John was said to be a priest king of India. This summer Eldevik will travel to the Monumenta Germaniae Historica in Munich for a month of research related to Prester John and the letter, through a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service. In 2018, he will spend the spring semester doing further work at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J.

The Prester John legend sounds like it was made for the silver screen, or maybe HBO. In about 1165 in Western Europe, says Eldevik, a text began to circulate that was purportedly a letter written by Prester John, a contemporary king priest, to a Western ruler. This was a time of debate between royal and papal power in the region, which made Prester John a very important figure.

Still, ​the letter was a fraud, possibly written as a kind of satirical propaganda, and it is unclear whether its author intended it to be taken as true, Eldevik explains. The text tried to demonstrate that in an ideal Christian realm, power would lie with a single ruler who was king and priest and to whom the rest of the church would be subordinate.

“People seem to have been very taken with the idea that there was possibly a powerful Christian ruler in the East in the land beyond Islam — and that this Christian ruler might potentially be someone, if you could contact him, who could aid the Christians in the Crusades or something like that,” Eldevik says.

The letter went viral by medieval standards, circulating and getting copied into dozens and dozens of manuscripts. It appears that sometimes people swallowed the story. Eldevik says that in the Fifth Crusade, word spread throughout the crusade camp that Prester John was coming to rescue them.

“It turned out to be a mangled report about the conquest of Genghis Kahn. And Genghis Kahn, as the Westerners would later find out, was not a Christian king on his way to help them but to do much worse. But they would hear reports about a great empire to the east and think, ‘Oh — maybe this is what this text is referring to,’” Eldevik says.

 By examining the trove of manuscripts that incorporate the Prester John letter, Eldevik will research how the letter circulated, who read it and patterns of its readership and circulation over time. He will also look at the most recent research about Prester John. He has a contract with ARC-Humanities Press for a related book project.

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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