The Potential Importance of Considering Visual Perspective in Representations of Pretense

Jennifer Van Reet is a developmental psychologist and an Associate Professor at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. She studies the cognitive components of pretense and how they develop into adulthood.

Jennifer Van Reet is a developmental psychologist and an Associate Professor at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. She studies the cognitive components of pretense and how they develop into adulthood.

A post by Jennifer Van Reet.

My own thinking about how pretense is represented has certainly evolved over the years. Most recently, my conception most closely resembles Picciuto and Carruthers (2016)’s characterization of pretense as a state of “embodied imagination” in which individuals act as if P (without believing it) while imagining that P”.  What I appreciate about this characterization is how it makes clear that imagining is a necessary component of pretending, but that pretending is something more, and thus, different from imagining. Picciuto and Carruthers clearly specify how “acting as if” can mean not acting at all (e.g., when you pretend to sleep by lying completely still) or not acting any differently from how one would act in the real world (e.g., when you pretend to have painted fingernails just by acting like you). 

Last summer, in my post on this blog, I invited readers to participate in the mental exercise of pretending they had green hair versus imagining they had green hair. In the past year, I have repeated this challenge to many others. Some people react (as I do) by expressing that the pretense and the imagining feel phenomenologically different in some way. But, many others feel no difference between the two and look at me bewildered when I tell them that others do. This is a non-representative survey, to be sure, but the sharp split in the responses has kept me thinking. My current working hypothesis is that the difference in reactions may be explained, in part, by the default visual perspective assumed by the participant. Specifically, some individuals naturally adopt a first-person (field) perspective when imagining this scenario, and others take a third-person (observer) perspective. Personally, I always do the latter when I imagine myself. That is, my mind’s eye is “looking down” on myself with green hair. However, when I pretend to have green hair, it is always a first-person perspective.

Indeed, one of the unique features of pretending is that it is always from a first-person perspective. Pretense is an online construction – an individual creates (or co-creates) an alternative world and is an actor in that world engaging in the present tense. The same is certainly true for some imagination as well. But, as many in philosophy and psychology have noted (see partial review in Libby & Eibach, 2011), imagination is not constrained by a first-person perspective. One can imagine from a number of perspectives – first-person, third-person, or none at all (e.g., imagining a flying car). But, the imagining within pretense is always the first-person type.  

This is not to say that there are not moments within pretense episodes in which the third-person is sometimes used. For example, we know that real-world negotiation takes place within young children’s socio-dramatic play. In a “playing house” scenario, one child might say, “I’m tired of being the daddy. You are the daddy now and I am the baby.” This shows that even children can shift perspective rapidly to reflect upon their actions and their roles. However, when the child makes this suggestion, s/he is no longer pretending to be “daddy”. S/he has temporarily stepped back into the real world and adopted a new perspective in order to re-negotiate the rules of the game.

Another example of third-person use within pretense might be a child pretending to be a superhero and using the superhero’s name in their play instead of personal pronouns like “I”.  That is, a child pretending to be Spiderman might proclaim, “Spiderman caught the bad guy!” instead of “I caught the bad guy!”  However, even in this case, the child is still “seeing through” Spiderman’s eyes. This sort of third-person pronoun use likely serves a communicative function (Friedman, 2013), allowing play partners or observers (i.e., a parent in the room) insight into the pretend world the child has created, just like when a parent uses third-person pronouns in order to teach (e.g., “Mommy spilled the milk so Mommy is cleaning it up now”).

Pretending individuals could also conceivably hold a first-person representation and a third-person one concurrently. For example, when I am pretending to have a tea party with my young daughter, I often represent both “I am pretending this cup has tea” while also thinking about how I would look to a stranger who happened to glance in the window and saw me drinking out of an empty cup. But, because I am able to imagine how I look from an observer perspective does not mean I am not also using a first-person perspective in order to pretend.

Because the first-person perspective is so integral to the imagination that occurs within pretense, I argue that theories of pretense representation should take perspective seriously. For example, Picciuto and Carruther’s description might be modified to something like the following: “to pretend that P is to act as if P (without believing it) while imagining that P from a first-person perspective.

Does specifying the visual perspective matter? I argue that it matters quite a bit. There is a considerable amount of empirical evidence from cognitive and social psychology showing that perspective is psychologically important. Adopting a third-person perspective often (although not always) has been shown to have beneficial effects on thinking, identity, and behavior. For example, participants remember more contextual details when recalling an event from a third-person versus a first-person perspective (McIsaac & Eich, 2002). In terms of the future, college students who were assigned to imagine success from a third-person perspective had higher achievement motivation than students who imagined from a first-person point of view (Vasquez & Buehler, 2007). In another study, participants who were instructed to imagine themselves voting in an upcoming election from a third-person perspective were more likely to actually vote in the election a few days later than participants who were instructed to imagine voting from a first-person perspective (Libby, Shaeffer, Eibach, & Slemmer, 2007). These are just three examples of the many effects of visual perspective found in the psychological literature.

While visual perspective has been and continues to be thoroughly examined in the philosophy and psychology of imagination, it has not yet (to my knowledge) been studied in the context of pretending. It seems to me that applying what we know about visual perspective and imagination to pretense opens up many new avenues for exploration and reveals open questions to be answered. For instance, take the question of whether young children can acquire new knowledge from pretending (a main focus of my research in the past several years). The empirical evidence related to this question is decidedly mixed: some studies show learning of novel facts and others (including my own) show limited or no learning. The extant literature concerning the effects of visual perspective on memory might shed some light on this puzzle. If pretend experiences are encoded from a first-person perspective, as I hypothesize they are, one would predict, based on previous research, good memory for emotional and physiological states and poor memory for more abstract and conceptual details. In other words, it makes sense that a child might remember a pretense episode experienced at preschool as “fun” but not remember any of the content the teacher was trying to convey. Given the growing movement for play-based early childhood education, I believe strongly that it is important to elucidate exactly what pretending can and cannot do for learning. Knowing exactly how pretense is represented is a crucial step toward that goal. I am hopeful that considering visual perspective will be a fruitful direction for future thinking and research.


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.

Libby, L. K., & Eibach, R. P. (2011). Visual perspective in mental imagery: A representational tool that functions in judgment, emotion, and self-insight. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 44, pp. 185-245). Academic Press.

Libby, L. K., Shaeffer, E. M., Eibach, R. P., & Slemmer, J. A. (2007). Picture yourself at the polls: Visual perspective in mental imagery affects self-perception and behavior. Psychological Science18(3), 199-203. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01872.x

McIsaac. H.K., & Eich, E. (2002). Vantage point in episodic memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9, 146–150.

Picciuto, E., & Carruthers, P. (2016). Imagination and Pretense. In Kind, A. (Ed.). The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination. Routledge: New York, NY.

Vasquez, N. A., & Buehler, R. (2007). Seeing future success: Does imagery perspective influence achievement motivation?. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(10), 1392-1405.