First-grade girls stick with science after pretending to be Marie Curie: Make-believe exercise boosted their fortitude on a challenging science game

Fake it ’til you make is true for children too, it turns out: Young girls embracing the role of a successful female scientist, like Marie Curie, persist longer at a challenging science game.

A new study, appearing Sept. 28 in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that science role-playing may help tighten the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and careers for women simply by improving their identity as scientists.

Frustrated by the gender gap in STEM, in which some fields employ at least three times more men than women, Cornell graduate student Reut Shachnai wanted to do something about it. Shachnai, who is now continuing her studies at Yale, said the idea to help foster young girls’ interest in science came to her during a lecture in a class she was taking on “Psychology of Imagination.”

“We read a paper on how children pretending to be a superhero did better at self-control tasks (the so-called ‘Batman effect’),” said Tamar Kushnir, Ph.D., who taught the class and is now a Duke professor of psychology & neuroscience as well as a fellow author on the new paper. “Reut wondered if this would also work to encourage girls to persist in science.”

Along with Lin Bian, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, Shachnai and Kushnir devised an experiment to test if assuming the role of a successful scientist would improve girls’ persistence in a “sink or float” science game.

The game itself was simple yet challenging: a computer screen projected a slide with an object in the center hovering above a pool of water. Kids then had to predict whether that object — be it an anchor, basketball, balloon, or others — would sink or float. After making their choice, they learned if they made the right choice as they watched the object either plunge or stay afloat.

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