Adults at plays(s)

Adults at Play(s) studies the psychology of dramatic audiences. At its heart is the notion of make-believe, which is psychologically puzzling: audiences know that what they see or read is fictional (the characters, the plot) but they respond to it emotionally as if it were real – a form of ‘cognitive dissonance’. This oddity raises psychological questions: what psychological mechanism(s) make(s) these seemingly contradictory mental states (knowing while pretending) possible? What benefit do audiences derive from this investment and engagement? At the same time a reciprocal literary question arises: how do dramatists manipulate the nature and the degree of the audience’s commitment to the transaction (‘I know this is not real but I temporarily behave as if it is’)? Adults at Play(s) explores the psychological and literary questions in tandem. Our methodologies are drawn from both psychology and the humanities. We carry out practical experiments with live audiences and live drama, as well as cognitive experiments online and in the lab; but we also study the dramatic texts. The aim is to further our psychological understanding of how adults believe in things that are not ‘real’ as well as to study the textual and performance-related cues that audiences respond to. Our chosen body of material is Greek and Shakespearean tragedy.

Project Members

Selected Recent Publications

For further publications please see the personal pages of individual members of the project.


The Adults at Play(s) group regularly conducts audience experiments: please contact us if you want to be kept up-to-date about upcoming opportunities to take part.


Two events on Make-Believe in Drama, 20-21 May 2016

Why do adults believe in fictional worlds? Why do they spend time and money at the theatre committing emotionally to stageworlds they know are not real? In May 2016, the Adults at Play(s) project hosted two events exploring these questions:

Friday, May 20th: a one-day international research colloquium, bringing together speakers from the worlds of Theatre, Classics, English, Cognitive Studies and Psychology.
Saturday, May 21st: an event for the general public, with a keynote lecture by Professor Dame Marina Warner and several shorter talks.

For more information about both these events, please click here.

‘Make-Believe’ seminar series, 2015

In Trinity Term 2015, the Adults at Plays project together with TORCH organised an interdisciplinary seminar series on the topic of make-believe. For more information about both this series, please click here.


To contact the project, please email one of the project members. If you are getting in touch about one of our experiments, please direct your email to