Cognitive Daily


i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifAny grown-up would be surprised to see SpongeBob Squarepants show up in a Batman movie. Clearly, these characters inhabit two different fantasy worlds: one lives in a fabulous mansion near bustling Gotham City, while the other inhabits an underwater pineapple. Grown-ups divide fantasy worlds into non-intersecting sets: If Batman has even heard of SpongeBob, he would believe him to be a fictional character.

But what about children? Do they have the same understanding of the distinction between separate fictional worlds? Kids do understand the difference between reality and make-believe from a very young age, but this doesn’t discount the possibility that for children, there are only two worlds: fantasy and reality. Deena Skolnick and Paul Bloom have created a simple pair of studies to find out if kids view fantasy worlds the same way grown-ups do.

In the first study, they asked adults and four-year-olds to identify pictures of characters from nine different fictional worlds, including Spider-Man, Finding Nemo, and Blue’s Clues. If they knew the main character (e.g. SpongeBob), then they were asked if they knew another character (e.g. Mr. Krabs). Subsequent questions only involved the worlds and characters the kids were familiar with. Next, they were asked to name one of their friends, indicating whether he or she was real or make-believe. Kids who failed to answer this question correctly were also excluded from the analysis (interestingly, five adults who answered “make believe” were also excluded from the study).

Finally, they were asked about the fictional characters. There were three types of questions: reality/fantasy (do you think Batman is make-believe?), fantasy/fantasy (does Batman think Nemo is real or make-believe?), and between-world (does Batman think Robin is real or make-believe)? Here are the results:


While kids and adults are largely in agreement about reality/fantasy and fantasy/fantasy, believing that Batman is make-believe and Batman believes SpongeBob is make-believe, there is a difference in the within-world responses. Kids are more likely than adults to say that Batman believes Robin is also a fictional character. Even for children, significantly fewer give this response than in the other conditions, but nonetheless, this study does reveal a striking difference between children and adults.

But do kids really believe that Batman doesn’t think Robin is real? That would make life in Gotham City rather perplexing, don’t you think? Why would Batman be motivated to fight crime at all, if he truly believed that all his adversaries were fantasies?

There is another possible explanation of the data: that children simply have trouble taking Batman’s perspective. Their answers might simply reflect their own knowledge that Batman’s world is fictional.

To clear up this issue, Skolnick and Bloom devised a second study. This time, instead of directly asking what Batman and the other characters thought, the questions were phrased in terms of actions. So kids were asked, for example, “Can Batman see Robin?,” “Can Batman touch Robin?,” and “Can Batman talk to Robin?” Only then were they asked the explicit questions from Experiment 1: “Does Batman think that Robin is real?” Since the researchers already knew that adults could take the perspective of another, this experiment was conducted only with children. Here are the results:


Now the results for children are statistically indistinguishable from those of adults in the first study. So it appears that children even as young as four distinguish between different fantasy worlds in the same way as adults do. Batman doesn’t party with SpongeBob. Except on Halloween.

Skolnick, D., & Bloom, P. (2006). What does Batman think about SpongeBob? Children’s understanding of the fantasy/fantasy distinction. Cognition, 101, B9-B18.


  1. #1 "Q" the Enchanter
    October 31, 2006

    I think the partition is due to a failure of imagination. Cf. Freddy and Jason, Alien and Predator, Godzilla and Bambi, or Superman, Wonderwoman and Captain America.

    If Batman doesn’t party with SpongeBob, it’s not because of fundamental entailments arising out of some unconsciously operationalized possible worlds semantics; it’s because the possible SpongeBob most vivid in kids’ minds simply isn’t *cool* enough to hang with Batman.

  2. #2 Yakob6000
    October 31, 2006

    Batman told me and my friends Calvin and Hobbes at dinner the other night that the reason him and spongebob fell out was because of religious differences along with him not being a great fan of pineapple.

  3. #3 David Group
    October 31, 2006

    Spongebob told me that alien abductions are just bad dreams caused by eating too many Krabby Patties.

  4. #4 hypatia cade
    October 31, 2006

    How old are these kids? At what age would you expect children to behave like adults? (Theory of mind develops between 3-5… would a six year old act just like an adult?) It is indeed curious that 5 adults got kicked out!

  5. #5 Fuzzy Logic
    November 1, 2006

    @ Hypatia Cade: Here’s some age data:

    “Twenty-four adults (mean age: 28 years, range: 18-52, 10 women) and 24 children (mean age: 4;10, range: 3;7-6;2, 16 girls)” + “Despite the large range for children’s ages, we found no correlation between age and responses for either Study 1 or Study 2, [therefore] we treat all children as part of the same age group.”

    Aside of that, here’s an interesting sentence (again from the article itself): “[…], although some young children may have imaginary friends, they are quite aware that these friends are not real (Taylor, 1999).”

    From this perspective, it may well be that Batman does really believe Robin isn’t real, yet is nonetheless capable of interacting with Robin (and seeing Robin), just as children are able to interact with imaginary friends (even despite knowing/acknowledging these imaginary friends aren’t real). From this perspectives, Batman believing Robin isn’t real actually doesn’t make life in Gotham City rather perplexing at all.

  6. #6 taleswapper
    November 1, 2006

    I wonder if Batman thinks Batman is real? Perhaps kids believe that characters are aware that they are fantastical.

  7. #7 Ptarth
    November 1, 2006

    I did an informal mini-study here on campus of ~10 college students. The results actually were more like what the kids reported than the adults, my sample said that Batman didn’t believe in Robin anymore than Sponge Bob.

  8. #8 Jessy
    November 1, 2006

    Depending on the date of this study/the age of the kids and adults, did anyone look into what the kids know about Batman’s world?
    For example, the Batman cartoon from the mid90s had some Robin appearances, but plenty of episodes without him. Some of the Batman movies have Robin, some don’t. The fact that much of what’s come out more recently involving Batman (I’m thinking of the last movie) was definitely not for kids. And didn’t have Robin in it, anyway.
    I don’t think it’s as much of a given anymore that knowing the Batman character = knowing the Robin character.

  9. #9 Dave Munger
    November 1, 2006

    “Depending on the date of this study/the age of the kids and adults, did anyone look into what the kids know about Batman’s world?”

    Yes, they specifically asked kids if they knew about particular characters in each world, then only asked them about those characters.

  10. #10 Dave Munger
    November 1, 2006

    I should add that I’m really enjoying the literary character of the comments today. (Due to the bookslut link, I imagine)

  11. #11 Phil
    November 3, 2006

    What would be more interesting would be to compare reactions to characters within connecting fantasy worlds (and, therefore, corporate worlds) as well. For example: Does Batman think Superman is real? And does the acknowledgement that he would think that an example of facility with fantasy concepts, or with the holding properties of DC Comics. Where is the line drawn between distinctions of a fantasy world and a corporate world? If there is no line, then is it possible to say that the two are effectively the same?

  12. #12 Caledonian
    November 5, 2006

    The Batman-Superman question is a complex one and depends highly on the specific examples you’re familiar with. In some properties, Batman and Superman not only exist in the same world but have fought each other on multiple past occasions and sometimes work together (in the Justice League, for example, both are part of a team of superheroes).

    If you’re a big fan of Justice League, you’re going to believe that Batman is fictionally aware of Superman and vice versa. If you’ve never seen any of the content in which the two interact, there’s no particular reason to believe that one knows the other, any more than Spongebob and Tinky Winky do.

  13. #13 Bob Kane
    November 12, 2006

    The comment about the children’s knowledge of Batman and Robin is right. Many children will have seen Batman appearing in television shows without Robin. The Justice League series of recent years for instance has no appearances of Robin, but lots of appearances of Batman.

    The show Teen Titans has a team of teenage superheroes led by Robin but Batman never appears and is never referred to.

    I think that there may be a flaw in the fundamental pairing of Batman and Robin when talking to children who have only been watching tv the past few years.

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