Today's Christian children don't independently invent Santa Claus from thin (albeit tinsel-laced) air: They learn about Santa from their parents, their peers and their culture.
But what leads them to eventually reject the reality of Santa, as they typically do by age 8 or 9? Is it what they're eventually told (or overhear)? Or do they reason their way out of belief?
A new paper by Andrew Shtulman and Rachel InKyung Yoo, forthcoming in the journal Cognitive Development, identifies one factor that may contribute to children's emerging skepticism about Santa: The ability to differentiate impossible from improbable events.
Shtulman and Yoo had 47 3- to 9-year-old children participate in a series of tasks designed to assess their understanding of physical possibility and their reasoning about Santa. In one task, children were asked to explain some of Santa's extraordinary properties, such as his ability to travel around the world in one night, to fit down narrow chimneys, and to somehow or other figure out whether each child has been naughty or nice.
In response, children often failed to generate anything resembling an explanation, instead simply restating the extraordinary property or offering irrelevant information. And 14 percent of explanations referenced magic. But a substantial 40 percent reflected genuine attempts to make sense of Santa's properties within the confines of physically possible mechanisms, even if the explanations ultimately fell short in some way. For example, one child explained Santa's ability to reach all houses by suggesting that "he makes multiple trips." Another explained that he fits down chimneys by removing his jacket — and, yet another, that he knows which children are naughty and which are nice because "he has cameras all around the world" (we're still waiting to hear from Edward Snowden on the possibility of that one, actually).
Interestingly, the researchers found that those children who offered such explanations were also better at differentiating impossible events, such as traveling back in time, from merely improbable events, such as finding an alligator under the bed. And when given the chance to write a letter to Santa, which they did at the very start of the study, they were also more likely to ask Santa questions about his extraordinary abilities, such as how his sled flies, potentially reflecting some inchoate skepticism. These relationships held up even when factoring out the effects of children's age.
So, what does this tell us about children's eventual rejection of the reality of Santa?
In short, these findings suggest there's something to the idea that children partially reason their way out of believing in Santa, with their emerging understanding of physical possibility fueling some reasonable skepticism. But a few caveats are in order. One, which the authors are quick to acknowledge, is that asking Santa probing questions ("How do you fit into those chimneys?") is at best an indirect measure of skepticism. Another is that the study is correlational. We don't know that differentiating improbable from impossible events leads children to question Santa's extraordinary abilities, and that this process of questioning leads to eventual rejection.
Taking a step back, the study also raises questions about what leads some people — but only some people — to reject the reality of religious entities, such as angels, a messiah or God. These entities, like Santa, exhibit extraordinary properties that defy explanations in terms of the physical mechanisms we typically consider possible. Why don't people similarly "outgrow" such beliefs?
These reflections may come off a little Grinchy, but there's no reason skepticism and curiosity can't coexist with celebration. In an interview about this work, one radio host accused Shtulman of "sucking all of the Christmas joy out of the hearts and minds of some small children," ending the interview with the note: "I think you ruined it for all of us."
I asked Shtulman (by email) for his take on this response:
"Children are naturally curious, and developing a more sophisticated understanding of physical possibility only added to that curiosity. The fact that children are curious about Santa — and possibly even skeptical — is not cause for despair. If anything, it's cause for celebration because it means that they are thinking critically about what they are told, questioning the basis of their beliefs."
Perhaps we should all consider adding a healthy dose of curiosity and skepticism to this year's winter celebrations, whatever form they take.
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo