Let’s pretend: Mason researcher look at how children’s interaction with fictional worlds influences their social development


As early as elementary school, George Mason University researcher Thalia Goldstein was an active participant in the arts. Finding herself drawn to acting, dance, and gymnastics, Goldstein pursued majors in psychology and theatre during college and even work as an actress and dancer in New York City for three years following graduation.

headshot of Thalia Goldstein
Thalia Goldstein. Photo by Shelby Burgess/Strategic Communications

However, Goldstein could not ignore her love for the study of the mind, and she soon began to question how she could combine her interests into a single profession. Goldstein realized that developmental psychology was the key for her, and a research career was born.

“My original research questions centered around how engagement with theatre and the arts interrelates with psychological concepts, such as empathy, emotional regulation, and understanding others,” said Goldstein, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “Although these are prevalent across the lifespan, it is particularly intriguing to study how they affect children and their ability to learn.”

After being hired at Mason, Goldstein established her own lab: the Social Skills, Imagination, and Theater Lab. Her lab’s research primarily focuses on how children’s social and emotional development is impacted by their engagement in fictional worlds, including television and books.

“For any study we perform in my lab, the impact I’m always looking for is, ‘Does it spur the next question?’” said Goldstein. “We like to say that we are attempting to put together the pieces to the intricate puzzle that is known as childhood development.”

One of Goldstein’s major ongoing studies pertains to parental honesty—she is investigating how make-believe stories that parents often tell their children, like the existence of Santa Claus, influence a child’s emotional growth.

Her objective with this research is to address a paradox that emerged after analyzing initial findings: how do parents rationalize the inherent dishonesty of spreading fictional tales while simultaneously wanting to raise trustworthy and virtuous children? For Goldstein, this study calls into question the role of lying, specifically white lies and behavioral control lies, in modern society.

Listen to Goldstein discuss her research with Mason President Gregory Washington on the Access to Excellence podcast.

She is also the co-director of the National Endowment for the Arts research lab, the Mason Arts Research Center, which investigates the role and effects of arts engagement, across all art forms, on social and emotional development in educational and other contexts.

Goldstein’s career path has not come without its hurdles. She cites her perseverance as the main factor in overcoming any obstacles she has faced and believes persistence is a key trait for all women in science.

“Sometimes you may be underestimated, but you can’t let that hold you back,” said Goldstein. “You have to keep going.”

Goldstein’s constant curiosity also inspires her to continue moving forward with her work.

“This field of research is like a blank slate,” said Goldstein, who is also a member of Mason's Institute for Biohealth Innovation. “There are endless amounts of questions surrounding theatre, imagination, and pretend play: Why not start answering some of them now?”