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A glimpse at some of the fascinating projects

Thalia Goldstein, PhD

HOW MAKE-BELIEVE HELP S US UNDERSTAND THE REAL WORLD Dyson Psychology Professor Thalia Goldstein, PhD, investigates the intersection of fantasy and reality in children and adolescents. A PERFORMER FROM A VERY YOUNG AGE, Dyson Professor of Psychology Thalia Goldstein, PhD, was involved in theater and dance all through her childhood. When she got to college, she double-majored in Psychology and Theater. After college she moved to New York to pursue a career on the stage, putting psychology aside for a time. “I was a waitress and a tutor and a nanny—I did a whole bunch of odd jobs while I was trying to be an actress. I had a little bit of success, and after a while, I decided that I really missed psychology and thinking about science. I missed academia,” says Goldstein. She became a lab manager at NYU and after a year, began work on her PhD at Boston College. In the years since, Goldstein has been able to combine her passion for performance with her love of psychology. She began her research on the effects of acting on children and adolescents at Boston College, then won a National Science Foundation fellowship to become a post-doctoral scholar at Yale. “I was focused on figuring out what are the intersections between being engaged in fiction and pretend and acting and role play and understanding other people, understanding emotions and personality and characteristics, and all the things that make us human,” she explains. At Pace, Goldstein founded the Social Cognition and Imagination (SCI) Lab. With the help of her research team—which includes several graduate and undergraduate students—she 34


in progress at Pace

looks at how acting and pretend-play might help with the development of empathy, compassion, and altruism in children and adolescents. She recently received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to conduct a large scale, longitudinal study on four-year-olds and how role play helps with their social and psychological development. She’s also researching how children learn to understand the pretend-reality boundary, using short video clips of an actor pretending to respond to various kinds of events. “Threeand four-year-old kids seem to think that even if you’re pretending to be a character (and we do tell them it’s pretend) who is sad or has just hurt their knee, then you really are sad and really do have an injured knee,” Goldstein says. “By the time the kids turn five, they are able to determine the realness of a physical characteristic—for instance, if an actor gets beat up, they know that that’s pretend. However, they do still have trouble determining if an actor is really sad if they are crying.” But it isn’t just kids who have trouble distinguishing reality from illusion. It may be part of the reason we go to the movies or watch television. Even though we know what we are seeing is not real, we have emotional reactions. “We want to be moved, we want to have an emotional reaction,” she says. This could be why actors who play doctors, like Hugh Laurie of House, receive fan mail seeking referrals or diagnoses, or why soap opera actors are often questioned about why their characters did something or other on the show. In the future, Goldstein plans to expand her research to include personality traits, knowledge, skills, and less-temporary characteristics, such as shyness. For more about the Social Cognition and Imagination Lab, visit

Pace Magazine Spring 2014  
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