Put yourself in the mind of a small child visiting Disney World for the first time. Yes, it’s exciting and magical and all that, but it’s hard to imagine that the Most Magical Place on Earth isn’t also brain-meltingly confusing. Last you checked in with Princess Tiana, which was on your mom’s iPad on the drive over here, she was an actual frog, hopping around New Orleans with her caddish, ambiguously European frog prince; now she’s right in front of you, in not-New Orleans, looking distinctly human and un-slimy. You just saw Captain America fighting Iron Man on the big screen, like, last week; now — okay, whoa, he’s coming in for the hug.
“It’s a very strange thing that we do to kids,” says Thalia Goldstein, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at Pace University. “Parents don’t teach their kids that Elsa and Cinderella and Wolverine are real — we talk about them as fictional characters, we talk about their worlds as fictional worlds. And yet we take them to Disney World and Universal Studios and there, standing in front of you, is an actual human being that looks like the movie, talks like the movie, is interacting with you. And it’s like, ‘Hey, what are they doing in this theme park? Why aren’t they in Arendale [the setting of Frozen] or wherever Wolverine lives?”
It’s a legitimate question. Goldstein, who runs Pace’s Social Cognition and Imagination Lab, has devoted much of her research career to answering a closely related one: How do kids learn to separate fictional characters, and their worlds, from the very real circumstances of their own lives? And what does the world look like in the years before they do?
One the most basic level, she says, the ability to understand the concept of pretend is already in place by the time kids can communicate well enough for psychologists to study them: “As soon as you can ask them a question that they understand [about fiction versus reality], they get it correct.”
Goldstein points to the work of Harvard education professor Paul Harris, who’s demonstrated that kids as young as 2 can understand and follow pretenses. Say you’re holding a tea party with a toddler, for instance, and turn a cup upside-down over the head of a stuffed-animal guest. Is the toy now wet? In Harris’s experiments, the answer was yes — his subjects read the cues of the situation to report that the teddy bear was covered in tea, even though the kids could see and feel that it was actually dry. But research has also shown that kids at that age also know the difference between fake-tea-party wet and real wet, like sticking the teddy bear in the sink and turning on the tap.
Their emotional reactions, though, may not fall in line with that division. Let’s say you’re back at the tea party, and you’ve just dumped the tea all over the teddy bear — the kid may know you didn’t actually shower their toy in hot liquid, but there’s still a good chance they’re going to be peeved; imaginary or not, you’ve flouted the rules in a way that makes them feel things.
“The really interesting conundrum about kids’ engagement in fantasy worlds is that they really act as if these worlds are true — they get upset if you spill the imaginary tea at the table, or if you don’t set a place at the table for their imaginary friend,” Goldstein says, “but if you ask them in direct language, ‘Is this the imaginary world or person the same as the real world?’ they do not get confused.”
It seems like hard work to juggle those two conflicting notions at once — real emotion over a world you know is fake — but “you can make the argument that adults do the same thing,” Goldstein says. “When you watch a super-sad movie, you get invested in the character, and you may cry real tears,” she says. “This is what we find in kids, too — even though they rationally understand that a fictional world is a fictional world and the real world is the real world, kids still have real, emotional reactions to fictional cognitive bases, to stories.”
But sometimes, the two become impossible to juggle, and those emotional reactions butt up hard against the knowledge that stories are just stories. Goldstein recently co-authored a study on how kids understand Santa Claus, identifying five distinct stages of belief. In the first, mall Santa is the True Santa — the same guy who slides down the chimney and eats the cookies and leaves the gifts under the tree, who’s capable of being everywhere at once. In the second, the stranger whose lap they sit on is a sort of magical minion to the big guy, a Santa-like figure with a direct line to the real chimney-slider. In the third, “he doesn’t have any magical characters of his own, but he has some sort of communication with the real Santa,” Goldstein says, “so if I tell him what I want, the real Santa will find out.” In stage four, even that connection disappears; the guy in a suit is just a guy in a suit, imitating the real one, who’s up in the North Pole obliviously doing his thing. In stage five, even the lone remaining Santa becomes just a myth.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, age didn’t seem to have much to do with the progression — Goldstein and her colleague found both 3-year-olds and 8-year-olds still in the first phase of belief. A better indicator, she says, is the degree to which the parents push the myth on their kids; the more they reference the existence of Santa, the more likely their child will continue to believe in it.
“Kids trust their parents to tell them about all sorts of things that they can’t see. Kids can’t see with their own eyes that there are eight planets, or that the sun is the same thing as the other stars, just a lot closer, or that there are germs that can get you sick,” she says. “So when parents present Santa Claus in the same way as they present [the existence of] germs, there’s no reason for the kids to have any ability to distinguish between the two different types of information.”
Theme parks are slightly different. For the most part, no one’s feeding their kids stories about how the characters that roam through Disney and Universal Studios make midnight visits to their homes. Elsa and Wolverine exist solidly in the realm of the fictional, until they show up as flesh-and-blood real and wrap their arms around your kid for a photo.
Goldstein’s lab is currently collecting data on how kids react to the seeming collision of worlds, but on the parks’ side, the strategy for navigating this murky territory seems to be deny, deny, deny. At Disney, costumed characters — who are called performers, not employees — are instructed to deflect questions of skepticism by referencing something about their adopted personas. “They’re taught to say, ‘I’m taking a break right now, and I’m not allowed to use my ice powers,’ or ‘I’m not allowed to let my claws out when I’m walking around,” Goldstein says. “Never admitting that they’re not real, but saying something about how the situation doesn’t let them use their full powers.”
Sometimes, though, the overlap between real and fictional becomes too complicated, and the kids too sharp, for the strategy to work as well as it’s supposed to. In a Reddit AMA a while back, one ex-Disney performer recalled the challenge of playing characters with real-life roots: “Pocahontas is pretty difficult, just because she was a real person that a majority of children learn about in school,” she wrote. “It was always hard to try and change the conversation about why I’m standing there talking to them and not dead. One time a little british boy said to me ‘MY CLASS VISITED YOUR GRAVE LAST YEAR!!!!!!!!!!’”
Which actually kind of sums it up: There’s no one moment where the lightbulb goes off and Pocahontas becomes just a stranger in a little tan dress. Rather, it’s a long, often not-so-linear, often bewildering process of reconciling what you’ve watched and read and been told with what you’re learning about how the world works.
“We build these worlds for kids as completely as we can,” Goldstein says. And then all that’s left to do is watch as they believe fully for a while, and then a little less and a little less — and then, eventually, give up on the idea of magical crossover altogether, but hopefully hold on to the way the pretending made them feel.