When I published my book two years ago (Cape, Spandex, Briefcase: Leadership Lessons from Superheroes, available everywhere—wink, wink), I had a number of colleagues who were happy for me, but skeptical about my use of superheroes to describe such a weighty topic as leadership. I won’t go into my rant on the effectiveness of pop culture as a learning tool or how storytelling enhances education or the benefits of metaphors. Instead, I am going to spend my time reveling in new research that both vindicates my ideas and benefits all of us.
In a study published in Child Development participants were asked to complete a boring task that they were told was important—pressing the space bar on a keyboard at regular intervals. They were then divided into three groups:
- Self-immersed were instructed to ask themselves throughout the task, “Am I working hard?”
- Third-person were instructed to reflect from a third-person perspective, inserting their own name and asking, for instance, “Is Olivia working hard?”
- Exemplar wore costumes, including Batman, Dora the Explorer, Rapunzel, and Bob the Builder—well-known characters who model hard work. These participants were instructed to ask themselves, “Is Dora working hard?”
The research found that those wearing a Batman costume were better able to resist distraction and were significantly more industrious. The third-person condition performed less well, and those in the self-immersed group spent the least amount of time on task.
On one hand, I find the “Batman Effect” surprising. Wouldn’t the costume be disruptive? The researchers, however, suggest that when using third-person or impersonating someone else, we dissociate from boring tasks. This self-distancing (viewing personal experiences from an outsider’s perspective) keeps us focused, helps us maintain self-control, and can support prioritizing longer-term goals.
If role play is an effective and accessible tool for instilling perseverance, how else can we utilize it in other aspects of our lives? Can we sike ourselves up for a speech by pretending to be Barak Obama? Can we project confidence by pretending to be Kerry Washington? Can we maintain composure by pretending to be Dean Martin? Can we be more outgoing by pretending to be Kevin Hart?
In Cape, Spandex, Briefcase I was not so bold as to suggest you BE Batman. In hindsight, maybe I should have. It’s the difference between asking, “What would Batman do?” and “Let’s pretend I’m Batman.” Find people (fictional or otherwise) who embody attributes you admire and try them on for a bit. Experience what it feels like to do what they do, the way they do it. We can all benefit from employing a little more imagination.