Pretending Without Action Is Not the Same as Imagining

Jennifer Van Reet is a developmental psychologist and an Associate Professor at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. She also keeps busy as a Jazzercise instructor, wannabe chef, and Mama to an inquisitive preschooler and a cuddly baby.

Jennifer Van Reet is a developmental psychologist and an Associate Professor at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. She also keeps busy as a Jazzercise instructor, wannabe chef, and Mama to an inquisitive preschooler and a cuddly baby.

A post by Jennifer Van Reet

Will you indulge me for a minute? To illustrate and introduce the topic of my post, I have a quick mental exercise for you. (And – full disclosure - I’m also hoping you will share your results so I can collect some anec-data from all you wonderful thinkers who follow this blog.)  Are you ready?

1) For the next thirty seconds, pretend that you have green hair.

… Done? Okay, now just one more task …

2) For the next thirty seconds, imagine that you have green hair.

How did that feel? Did pretending to have green hair “feel” in any way different than imagining to have green hair? (Again, this is not simply rhetorical question - I’m really asking! If you are willing, please describe your experience in the comments. Thanks in advance!)

For me, pretending to have green hair is quite a different mental experience than imagining having green hair. For one, although it is easy enough to pretend to have green hair without behaving or acting in any way, it certainly feels like I should be acting … but how? No action accompanies having unusually-colored hair. When I perform this exercise, I always end up doing nothing in particular, but I do find my thoughts preoccupied by searching for some way to behave in accordance with my pretend state. Maybe I have green hair because I’m a rebellious teenager, so I should pretend to sulk? However, this would be a different pretense – I would be pretending to be a rebellious teenager who has green hair, not simply pretending to have green hair. Imagining I have green hair, however, inspires no such search for an accompanying action. Instead, stillness feels correct.

Second, pretending has a temporal quality. It seems as if it is happening right now, in the present tense to my present self, whereas imagining feels disconnected from time in some meaningful way.  When I imagine that I have green hair, I am not necessarily imagining myself as I exist right now. Even when I change the premise to “imagine that you have green hair right now,” thereby explicitly adding a time component, a difference from the pretend version remains. The imagining has a hypothetical quality about it - like I am asking myself “what if I had green hair?” Relatedly, and somewhat surprisingly to me, pretending feels like harder mental work. I feel like I am constantly refreshing the representation of “me with green hair” to keep it present and active in my mind. Imagining, by contrast, feels like a one-time effort.

So, what’s my point? Can we extract anything from this exercise? To be honest, I’m not sure. I am of course mindful that the way thoughts “feel” is not an indication of how they actually work in our minds. However, I find this example helpful as a way to jumpstart my thinking about (and perhaps even work toward developing a theory of) whether and how pretense is a separate mental state from imagining.

Although many have moved on from the debate surrounding the nature of pretense that so occupied some of the cognitive development and philosophy of mind communities in the 1990s and 2000s (part of the period Shen-yi Liao aptly named “The Pretense Era” in his post), I must admit that I have not. I am stuck in The Pretense Era. For me, the question of how pretense is mentally represented has never been satisfactorily resolved. To be sure, we have a variety of theories, many of which converge in important ways. But, we certainly cannot say consensus has been reached.

In my work, I have mostly approached the question of how pretense is represented by exploring the role of inhibition in representations of pretend actions (a feature notably missing in current theories of pretense representation, might I add). But more recently, my thoughts have returned to the question of whether pretense is a mental state, the result of encountering several fresh claims that it is not. For example, although Friedman (2013) does not entirely close the door on the possibility, he states “there is a compelling reason to believe that pretend is not a mental state.” He goes on to argue that pretense is a form of communication, like drawing. Stitch and Tarzia (2015) explicitly deny that pretense is a mental state, and set forth an account of pretense as a game. Where these two accounts importantly differ is that Friedman acknowledges that other mental states (e.g., intention) are needed to pretend, while Stitch and Tarzia assert that pretending and understanding pretense can be entirely behavioral (i.e., although they may be used, mental states are not required). Thus, there is quite a diversity of opinions as to whether action is a requirement for pretense, from those who say pretending can be only a type of behavior, to those who have long contended action is not essential (e.g., Angeline Lillard’s theoretical work on pretense, notably Lillard, 1993; 2001).

I fall squarely in the camp of “action not required.”  I assert that one can pretend without acting and without communicative intent. Where I go one step further is in asserting that pretense without action is different in some meaningful way(s) from imagining the same alternative state of the world. In other words, pretending is not simply imagining plus behavior; pretense is its own unique mental state.  

The next step is to determine what the difference(s) between pretending and imagining are. In my initial analysis, there are three possibilities:

1. Pretending and imagining are completely distinct mental processes.

2. Pretending relies on (or overlaps with) imagining in some way.

3. I am wrong, and pretending/imagining are the exact same mental process.

Of the three, my (imaginary) money is on #2. However, I acknowledge that the phrase “in some way” is doing a considerable amount of work and needs much further elaboration. Perhaps pretending is imagining plus other mental process(es). Returning to my thought experiment above, pretending (for me) had both a motor quality and present tense-ness to it that imagination lacked, so maybe pretending is imagining with motor and temporal representations attached? Or, perhaps pretending is an immature or partial version of imagining. In development, pretense does emerge earlier than imagining. So, maybe pretending is imagining with scaffolding?

Then, there is the issue of determining how to empirically test the claim that pretending without action is a different mental process than imagining. One reason that there are so many open questions remaining about the mental component of pretense is that it is exceedingly difficult to study. One can bring people into a laboratory and ask them to pretend, of course, and it is easy to determine if they comply behaviorally. But, determining whether they comply mentally is a different story. A participant could easily just go through the motions in response to an experimenter’s request to pretend, but truly be mentally engaged elsewhere. The same is of course true for participants who are told to imagine. Establishing tasks and procedures that can validly and reliably measure mental representations when people are pretending versus imagining will be an ongoing challenge for those of us interested in collecting behavioral data on this topic. Any ideas?


Friedman, O. (2013). How do children represent pretend play? In M. Taylor (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of The Development of Imagination (pp. 186-195). New York: Oxford University Press.

Lillard, A. S. (1993). Young children's conceptualization of pretense: action or mental representational state? Child Development, 64, 372-386. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.1993.tb02915.x

Lillard, A. S. (2001). Pretend play as twin earth: A social-cognitive analysis. Developmental Review, 21, 495-531. doi: 10.1006/drev.2001.0532

Stitch, S. & Tarzia, J. (2015). The pretense debate. Cognition, 143, 1-12. doi:  10.1016/j.cognition.2015.06.007