Here is an interesting comment on our jolly friend Santa.
WE delight in our children’s belief in reindeer that can fly and a fat man who fits through chimneys and travels the whole world in a single night. Many children believe fiercely not only in Santa Claus but also in other fantastical beings like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy from the time they are about 3 until they are 7 or 8.
Their eager belief contributes to the common view, shared by psychologists and other scientists, that young children are credulous (and conversely, that adults are not). Children believe everything they are told, we assume, with little regard for logic, a sense of the real world or any of the other criteria adults use to debunk such fictions as the Loch Ness monster or Sasquatch.
But are children really that different from us? A study that my colleagues and I conducted at the Children’s Research Laboratory at the University of Texas suggests not. We found that, in fact, children use many of the same cues adults use to distinguish fantasy from reality.
Our experiment was designed to investigate how a young child, upon encountering a fantastical being like a unicorn in a storybook, decides whether it is real or imaginary. Adults often make the call based on context. If, for example, we encounter a weird and unfamiliar insect at a science museum, we are more likely to think it is something real than if we find it in a joke store.
To see if children could also use context in this way, we described “surnits” and other made-up things to our study group. To some of the children, we put surnits in a fantastical context: “Ghosts try to catch surnits when they fly around at night.” To others, we characterized them in scientific terms: “Doctors use surnits to help them in the hospital.”
The 4- to 6-year-olds who heard the medical description were much more likely to think surnits were real than children who were told they had something to do with ghosts. The children demonstrated that they do not indiscriminately believe everything they’re told, but use some pretty high-level tools to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
If children are so smart, why do they believe in Santa Claus? My view is that they are exhibiting their very rational and scientific cognitive abilities. The adults they count on to provide reliable information about the world introduce them to Santa. Then his existence is affirmed by friends, books, TV and movies. It is also validated by hard evidence: the half-eaten cookies and empty milk glasses by the tree on Christmas morning.
In other words, children do a great job of scientifically evaluating Santa. And adults do a great job of duping them. As we gradually withdraw our support for the myth, and children piece together the truth, their view of Santa aligns with ours. Perhaps it is this kinship with the adult world that prevents children from feeling anger over having been misled.
So maybe this holiday season, when the children come rushing in to see what Santa brought, we should revel not in their wide-eyed wonder, but in how sophisticated and clever their young minds really are.
Jacqueline Woolley is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.