Children are savvier than we thought, so why do so many of them believe in Father Christmas? Answering that question reveals a lot about child psychology, and even more about adults
ROHAN KAPITÁNY was 7 when he started to question the existence of Santa Claus. Every Christmas, like many Australian kids, he had left out an apple and a carrot for the reindeer and a cold beer for the man himself – and every year, he found half-eaten snacks and an empty glass alongside a pile of presents the next day. But Kapitány had started having doubts. With his scepticism growing, he even hatched a plan to check his parents’ ATM receipts. “That was the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, of my belief in Santa,” he says.
Two decades later, Kapitány – now a psychologist at Keele University, UK – is investigating Father Christmas again. This time, he is probing the ways that children tell fact from fiction. He wants to know why some kids are more likely to believe in the supernatural than others, what makes Santa more plausible than other fictional figures and why we lie to our offspring in this way. The answers could have surprising implications for our understanding of young minds, conspiracy theorists and rituals.
As fairy-tale figures go, our modern Santa Claus is a rather recent invention. The real Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century AD, but it would take around 900 years for him to be recognised as a patron of children and the magical bearer of gifts. Even then, he was often portrayed as a fearsome figure. It was only in the 19th century that he took on the familiar form of a jolly old man sitting in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
Beliefs in Santa are incredibly prevalent among children in many Western countries. One study by Jacqueline Woolley at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) found that more than 80 per cent of 5-year-olds in the US are convinced of his existence. “The characteristics that he supposedly possesses defy everything that children know to be true about the world,” says Woolley. “People don’t live forever, they don’t have reindeer that fly, they can’t know what you want without speaking to you. Santa Claus violates all of those things, and yet children still believe in him. So you have to wonder what’s going on here.”
Some evolutionary scientists see children’s beliefs in Santa Claus as a sign of innate credulity. Children evolved to believe what their elders tell them, they argue, because it is safer than learning through trial and error when the consequences could be deadly. “It is easy to see why natural selection – the ‘survival of the fittest’ – might penalize an experimental and sceptical turn of mind and favour simple credulity in children,” wrote Richard Dawkins in his book Unweaving the Rainbow.
Yet careful experiments have shown that young children are, in fact, quite sophisticated in deciding who and what they trust. For example, Woolley and her UTA colleague Gabriel Lopez-Mobilia presented groups of 5 to 8-year-olds with fictional animals, such as the ocean-dwelling binbad. They were more likely to believe an animal existed if a zookeeper endorsed it rather than a chef, suggesting that they had already learned to take someone’s expertise seriously. Importantly, they also allowed their own knowledge to override expert endorsements. They were less likely to believe in a horse that climbs trees than one that lives in the jungle, for instance.
Children also want to see evidence before buying into more far-fetched ideas, and are sensitive to implicit clues, such as overhearing two adults talking about a fictional character in an offhand way. One October, Woolley and her colleagues told groups of 3 to 7-year-olds about the Candy Witch, who would leave a toy in return for a pile of sweet treats. Some were simply given a description of the witch. Others also overheard their parents making an apparent phone call to her, asking her to visit, and on Halloween these parents replaced some of their offspring’s sweets with toys. Children given this “evidence” of the Candy Witch’s existence were far more likely to believe in her than those who simply had to take their parents’ word for it.
“Children are, in fact, quite sophisticated in deciding who and what they trust”
This is a surprising degree of scepticism for such young minds. It also hints at the power behind the Santa myth. Parents tell detailed stories about his home at the North Pole and the elves that help him, encourage children to write letters to him and leave snacks for him and his reindeer in the evening that have disappeared by the morning. Some take their children to visit him in shopping centres or even in Lapland. In other words, parents have a variety of rituals designed to provide additional “proof” of Santa’s existence. Could these rituals be the key to his credibility?
Kapitány and his colleagues recently put this idea to the test by asking children, aged from 2 to 11, to rate the “realness” of different figures on a scale of 0 to 9. As you might hope, real people and animals – such as celebrities and dinosaurs – were at the top of the pantheon. Santa, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, all of whom come with associated rituals, were a close second. They were followed by ghosts and aliens, then finally by fictional characters like Princess Elsa from Frozen, which have no associated rituals. “Children are looking to see whether people’s behaviour is supportive of their beliefs,” says Kapitány. Santa seems to pass that test.
Check your conspiracy
So much for the credulous young mind. In fact, research by Woolley and her colleagues suggests that children are less likely to believe in supernatural phenomena than adults. Arguably, many of the conspiracy theories flying around the internet are less convincing than the idea of a man flying around Earth delivering presents. Unlike young children, people who buy into such ideas are forgetting to check the expertise of their sources, to use their prior knowledge and to seek other evidence to gauge the reliability of an unlikely scenario.
The big question, though, is why we go out of our way to fool kids about make-believe characters. Woolley says there is no evidence that it harms children in the long term. With Santa, it might even make sense as a way to improve their behaviour. After all, he has god-like omniscience: he knows if you’ve been bad or good and may punish or reward as appropriate. Kapitány’s surveys indicate that many parents use this threat. However, when he surveyed parents in the run-up to last Christmas, they reported that their children were just as naughty and no nicer than at any other time of year.
Given Santa’s seeming inability to keep kids in line, Kapitány suspects that these festive rituals are more about familial bonding – not to mention the sheer fun of sharing a story. Parents are often more distressed than their children when the illusion is uncovered, he says. “The magic is for the parents.”
More on these topics: