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Research: Social Cognition and Imagination

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Pace Psychology Professor Thalia Goldstein investigates the intersection of social cognition and imagination and its relationship to psychological development 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 throughout her childhood. By the time she got to college, she double-majored in Psychology and Theater. While working on her undergraduate degree, Goldstein found herself doing work in a social psychology lab and performing her own experiments, but the acting bug was a tough thing to shake. She ended up moving to New York to pursue a career on the stage, putting her work in psychology on the back burner for a bit.

“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. Soon after, 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 while working on her PhD and started more research looking at the understanding of acting after receiving a National Science Foundation fellowship to be 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 where, with the help of her research team which includes several of Pace’s graduate and undergraduate students, she 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 their engagement in role play helps with this sort of social and psychological development.

She’s also researching how children understand the way that emotions and personality and physical characteristics work at the pretend-reality boundary. By showing children short video clips of an actor’s reactions and responses to things they encounter on screen and then questioning them about the actors response, she and her team were able to determine that a child’s ability to distinguish reality versus pretend depends on age and development level.

“Three- and 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 pretend. It may be part of the reason we go to the movies or watch television. Even though we all agree and acknowledge that 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 like Hugh Laurie receive fan mail addressed to his House character 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 a variety of states—moving beyond just emotional and physical—to personality traits, knowledge, skills, and less-temporary characteristics, like shyness. She also hopes to expand her videos beyond just short clips to something that really illustrates a character going though several different states.

For more information about Thalia Goldstein’s research and her work at the Social Cognition and Imagination Lab, visit