The Years Of Magical Thinking: The Pscychology Of Believing In Santa

New research shows that belief in Santa can actually rise with age, and that three-year-olds believe in St. Nick just slightly less than they believe in the garbage man. But does kids' "magical thinking" have a larger purpose?

According to Shirley Wang of the Wall Street Journal, scientists measured Santa-faith not only against belief in the garbage man (no word on whether any kids thought he was stealing their garbage), but also against a made-up entity named the Candy Witch who they claimed arrived on Halloween and exchanged candy for toys. 70% of three-year-olds believed in Santa, while 78% believed in the — apparently only marginally more convincing — garbage collector. Among five-year-olds, the percentage of Santa adherents was actually higher, at 83%. And scientists were able to con almost two thirds of preschoolers into believing in the Candy Witch, with five-year-olds again more credulous than younger kids.

The scientists caution that most of the kids in the study were Christian, possibly making them more vulnerable to the Santa mythos. But as the Candy Witch experiment illustrates, kids are pretty easy to fool, even without the benefit of 100-plus years of quasi-religious tradition. It's not really so surprising that children's "magical thinking" grows (temporarily) stronger with age, either. I don't remember being three all that clearly, but I do seem to recall a lot of confusion — if woolly mammoths came out of the tar pits, might they also come out of the asphalt on the playground? Did our vacation last two weeks or two years? Did strange dreams prove you were an alien? I was totally mystified by the universe — but by five or so, like many kids, I had become a tiny conservative. I had a theory about how the world worked — a theory that included not just Santa but also herbivorous monsters and the idea that everyone whose name started with the same letter was somehow related — and I planned on taking that theory to the grave. Except that because of my various schemes for immortality, I was never going to die.

Of course, that all went to shit around age eight or so. This turns out to be about average — the researchers found that belief in Santa began to decline around age 7, and had dropped to a third by age 9. Meanwhile, nearly all nine-year-olds had accepted the reality of the garbage man. In a blog post on the same topic, Wang writes that kids who discover Santa is fake "often seem to relish that they figured out the secret, rather than feel sad." This wasn't my experience. Even as the persuasive voices of other kids on the bus grew too loud to ignore, I clung to my belief in Santa, afraid of the drastic worldview reorganization that letting go would require. I went through what cartoonist Roz Chast calls the "Santa is, like, a spirit" period, and when I finally accepted that a supernatural jolly being was not bringing me Barbie dolls, I remained pretty despondent for a while. In fact, this was the beginning of a time when I was no longer very excited about kid stuff, but there was no grown-up or even teenage stuff yet, and life looked kind of bleak.

Wang says scientists think children's "magical thinking" and belief in fantasy characters may "have a key role in helping children take someone else's perspective," and this seems likely enough. But I also think that believing in things like Santa is just a step along the way to developing some sort of personal understanding of the workings of the universe, something everybody needs in order to get through the day. Religious people may have a slightly easier time with this, but they still have to evaluate which parts of their chosen tradition actually ring true to them. As an agnostic, I don't believe in Santa or God, but I do believe that it's dangerous to look directly at the microwave (I read this somewhere!), that putting toilet paper on the seat shields me from germs (obviously false; totally comforting), that eyelash wishes are so powerful I need to think hard before I make them, and that if I have bad thoughts about people they will start having bad thoughts about me. And I believe that all these beliefs — plus Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Candy Witch — are ways of making whatever sense we can out of the many things in life we'll never really understand.

The Power Of Magical Thinking [Wall Street Journal]
Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus: The Importance Of Magical Thinking [Wall Street Journal]