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  • Shems Ghali

A Barbie World May Not Be so Plastic Afterall Now She’s Teaching Children Empathy

We all have our own personalities, it’s what makes us different. We live separate realities defined by our own experiences, families, friends and even social media feed but while these might be different we’re all human.

Our relationships have been built by understanding each other’s emotional states, feeling what others are feeling and putting ourselves to one side, focusing on someone else to understand what they are experiencing…

We all have empathy, to varying degrees, but when did we start developing this emotion?

The lyrics “Imagination, life is your creation” never felt more important than when we discovered Barbie teaches children empathy through doll play. Mattel teamed up with neuroscientists from Cardiff University on a study that showed how playing with dolls allows children to develop empathy and social information processing skills even when they are playing alone.

This happens because dolls play “naturally encourages children to create their own social worlds” so even when they’re playing alone, children imagine scenarios or even recreate situations from their lives that they act out. It’s a sort of ‘practice’ for any future situations they might find themselves in shall we say.

However, doll playing isn’t the only way to provoke feelings of empathy. Research found that people who read fiction tend to understand and share people’s emotions better than people who don’t. This is because fiction lets you explore different human experiences.

“Reading novels enables us to become better at actually understanding other people and what they’re up to,” says Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. “[With] someone who you’re married to ... or a close friend, you can actually get to know them. Reading fiction enables you to sample across a much wider range of possible people and come to understand something about the differences among them.”

Through fiction we are engulfed in another character’s life and perspective – we can see and feel what they do. This has the power to enlighten us of situations that are very different to our own. We can experience worlds as a different race, gender, age, profession and more…

We may be a little old for Barbie (although we’re never too old for play!) but it definitely inspired the team at One Minute to Midnight to get lost in a book this lockdown.

It also got us thinking about the role and power that brands can have in creating and strengthening empathy.

Marketing and comms is all about storytelling, a brand or business creating a somewhat fictional world with fictional characters to sell their products and services. But could a by-product of this be empathy and connection? In the same way fiction allows us access to other people and situations, why can’t brands via their marketing be the gatekeepers of empathy and connection?

At One Minute to Midnight, a big part of our research is values... we’ve even created a game around them! Much like doll play and reading, The Values Game lets stakeholders and their teams enter into the world of the participants, connect through shared values and explore different human experiences. It can be a great way to gain deep insight that can encourage that empathy and connection between brands and customers. As the market has developed over the last year we can see a bigger need for this than before, deeper relationships between brand and audience, more understanding of customers and more empathy... it's one that can’t be missed!

If you want to know more about our Values Game, or how we conduct our research please contact

Bye for now,

Shems - Research Executive at One Minute To Midnight

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