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Deena Weisberg, PhD - Villanova University. Villanova, PA, US

Deena Weisberg, PhD

Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences | Villanova University


Deena Weisberg, Ph.D., studies imaginative cognition and scientific thinking in young children and adults.



Deena Weisberg, PhD Publication





Areas of Expertise (8)

Child Development


Public Understanding of Science‎

Galapagos Islands

Pretend Play

Fictional Stories

Scientific Thinking

Guided Play


Deena Weisberg is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Villanova University, where she directs the Scientific Thinking and Representation (STAR) Laboratory. She is also a co-founder and Senior Director of the Galápagos Education and Research Alliance (GERA), a partnership between universities and Galápagos community members to promote science and conservation in the Galápagos Islands.

Weisberg earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale University and received postdoctoral training at Rutgers University and at Temple University. Her research interests include scientific thinking and reasoning in children and adults, the development of imaginative cognition, and the roles that the imagination plays in learning. Her work has been published in a variety of scholarly journals, including Science and Cognition, and has received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Templeton Foundation.

Education (2)

Yale University: Ph.D., Psychology 2008

Stanford University: B.S., Symbolic Systems 2003

Select Media Appearances (5)

Hollywood Should Give Brain Science a Star Turn

Scientific American  online


Oppenheimer’s success at the box office—and the Academy Awards—shows that scientific achievements can sparkle at the cinema... But one key area of science often remains poorly depicted: neuroscience and psychology.

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Fantasy Is a Valuable Educational Tool. Just Look at ‘Barbie’ | Opinion

EducationWeek  online


This summer provided a surprising new source of inspiration for the millions of educators and policymakers now heading back to school: Barbie.

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Positive Parenting: Fiction fights the 30 million-word gap

WFMZ-TV 69News  online


Deena Weisberg, PhD, a development psychologist at Villanova University, led a recent study, which included teaching preschool children words in fantasy books or reality-based words in fiction books. Then the kids were tested to see which genre better enriched their word retention.

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Imagine That, Fantasy May Help Kids Learn

Scientific American  online


For a long time psychologists had assumed that role-playing and other imaginative games would be most conducive to learning when the situation was as realistic as possible. New research suggests that a fantastical context may actually improve a child's learning outcomes in some cases, leading to a so-called fantasy advantage.

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Fantasy-Reading, Cape-Wearing Kids Might Be Better Learners Than You Normies

Mic  online


In one study, Deena Weisberg at the University of Pennsylvania's psychology department divided preschoolers into two groups. The first group listened to stories based in reality about topics like agriculture and cooking while the second heard tales of fantasy.

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Research Grants (4)

“Establishing a Global Network for Community science”

Rita Allen Foundation $75,000

January 2021 – September 2021

“Standard Research Grant: Community Science and Environmental Conservation”

National Science Foundation $463,254

August 2020 – July 2023

“Reducing Reliance on Plastic and Improving Domestic Water Supply: A Citizen Science Project for San Cristóbal Island”

Galápagos Conservation Trust $10,000

June 2018 – December 2019

“Young Children’s Beliefs about Causal Systems: Learning about Belief Revision in the Lab and in Museums"

National Science Foundation $610,476

September 2017 – August 2021

Select Academic Articles (5)

Should the cat in the hat keep talking like that? Educational correlates of anthropomorphism in children's science media.

Pscyhology of Popular Media

2023 Anthropomorphism is ubiquitous in children's media. But past research is mixed on whether this kind of unrealistic depiction benefits or harms children's learning. One possible explanation for these conflicting findings is that different levels of anthropomorphism have different effects.

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Dinos and GoPros: Children’s exploratory behaviors in a museum and their reflections on their learning

Frontiers in Psychology

2023 Research in both laboratory and museum settings suggests that children’s exploration and caregiver–child interaction relate to children’s learning and engagement. Most of this work, however, takes a third-person perspective on children’s exploration of a single activity or exhibit, and does not consider children’s perspectives on their own exploration.

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What does the Cat in the Hat know about that? An analysis of the educational and unrealistic content of children’s narrative science media.

Pscyhology of Popular Media

2023 Educational media can be a helpful supplement to early childhood education, especially for science, which is not as supported as other topics in classrooms and home environments. However, narrative educational media often contain unrealistic or fantastical elements, which may make it challenging for children to extract the target educational lessons.

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LAVA-Lobos: Raising Environmental Awareness through Community Science in the Galápagos Islands

Citizen Science: Theory and Approach

2023 Community science involves scientists and community members co-creating and co-executing scientific research. Given their deep engagement of non-scientists, these projects have great potential to improve their participants’ scientific knowledge and pro-environmental attitudes, as well as to collect first-order data on issues of local and scientific concern.

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Imaginative processes in children are not particularly imaginative

Behavioral and Brain Sciences

2022 The authors argue that children prefer fictions with imaginary worlds. But evidence from the developmental literature challenges this claim. Children's choices of stories and story events show that they often prefer realism. Further, work on the imagination's relation to counterfactual reasoning suggests that an attraction to unrealistic fiction would undermine the imagination's role in helping children understand reality.

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