Saturday, December 23, 2006

Believing in Santa—and surnits

Kids not more gullible, says shrink

Psychologist: Children are actually using reason and evidence in believing in Santa—because adults dupe them by planting clues as well as creating the whole social context for the belief. (As well as for other, crazier and more consequential lies, according to this blogger.)

Do You Believe in Surnits?

Published: December 23, 2006, New York Times

Austin, Tex.

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.

Our response:

Hello Prof. Woolley,

Just read your article in the NYT, and I understand its point that it's not that children are more credulous (gullible, prone to fantastic beliefs) than adults.

You point out we actually do a great job of duping them, providing them with at least some evidence and authority for such beliefs as in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. As a psychologist, do you have an opinion as to the harm such beliefs (and our encouraging them) do? Is there any research on whether encouraging children to believe appealing fantasies helps lay the groundwork for irrational future (religious, ideological, etc.) beliefs (many of which are held contrary to moderate standards of logic and evidence)?

Likewise, when children eventually are disabused of many of their incorrect but well-authorized beliefs, perhaps it also weakens their trust in the reliability of their epistemological framework, so that though, ironically, they might be more prone to endorse and adopt beliefs less well supported by the usual markers of truth and factuality. Perhaps these people are then more susceptible to belief in Creationism (Creation "science"), as an example. (Although, admittedly, this scheme and others attempt to adorn themselves in evidence and logic-based raiment. It is their religious underpinnings that are more manifestly anti-rational.)

It seems a truism that belief in Santa Claus is practice for, or an analog to, belief in the theistic God. (Be naughty/nice, get distant-future reward vs. punishment, etc.). However, it seems to me to also be practice for all the other forms of doublethink engaged in and even encouraged by society at large.

I was recent reading the sequel to Prof. Frankfurt's On Bullshit—On Truth—in a bookstore while waiting for my wife to do her shopping. Amid other sensible comments, he then started saying that a society that evidences a disregard for the importance of truth—casualness about whether things said and beliefs held are true or not—cannot flourish.

That's when I put the book down, as obviously (and unfortunately) at odds with the facts. (Of course, a society can't disregard truth in its engineering, scientific, economic and public policy-related activities and long flourish, but apparently those can be somewhat disconnected from other areas of collective life in which truth and falsity also could be operative concepts, but, sadly, generally are not.)

E.g., with you being from the great state of Texas, can you account otherwise for the fact that our current president, a former oilman from a major oil-producing state, etc., was elected twice by people who would not otherwise prefer to be paying 50% to 100% more for their gasoline than when he took office, among all the other burdens heaped on average working people during his administration?

Cheers --and Merry Christmas!


Prof. Woolley's response:

Dear David,
Thanks for your thoughtful email regarding my NYTimes op-ed piece in December. My apologies for not replying sooner. You were wondering about relations between Santa beliefs and later religious and ideological beliefs. Unfortunately there is no research of which I am aware that addresses your question. I do plan to conduct research into relations between SC beliefs and God beliefs, tho' it can be hard to get ethics approval for those kinds of studies. Cindy Dell Clark ("Flights of fancy, leaps of faith") argues in her book that SC belief provides the foundation for "faith" and ultimate belief in God. Jehovah's Witnesses and other Fundamentalists discourage SC beliefs for fear that it will negatively impact God beliefs. Anecdotal evidence suggests that children often try to figure out how the two are related, and often think of them similarly. There is some research on children's beliefs in creationism; it may be cognitively "easier" to believe in God than to "believe" in evolutionary theory (Margaret Evans, Pascal Boyer). Re: your final comment re: our great state, I do need to pass along that Travis County (where Austin is) voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the last election; we are a blue county in a red state. Our president presents a fascinating case in point regarding the challenges the fantasy-reality distinction continues to present throughout the life-span.
Jacqui Woolley

Jacqueline Woolley
The University of Texas at Austin
Department of Psychology
1 University Station A8000
Austin, Texas 78712-0187
Office:SEA 4.212
FAX: 512/471-5935

Blogger's note: There would be value in publishing and commenting here on a column in a Wall Street Journal Personal Journal section from last winter (2008, at this point) a commentator's argument that he encourages his sons' belief in Santa, though Santa doesn't exist, because, "Yes, Virginia, there is a God." You could look it up. Kind of pathetic. –DT

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