The creeping realisation that Santa isn’t real can be a watershed moment — not quite an entry into adulthood, but certainly a step in its direction.
But “real” and “not real” are not the only two categories that children have when it comes to cultural figures, according to a new study in PLOS ONE. Rather than a black-and-white model, Rohan Kapitány and colleagues propose a “sensible hierarchy” of belief in various figures, finding that cultural rites and norms for those figures play a big part in its creation.
Even very young children are capable of understanding the difference between real and non-real characters. But there are various factors that can convince them that a figure is real: testimony from others such as parents; indirect evidence like chocolate eggs or money left under a pillow; direct evidence like seeing a shopping centre Santa; and engagement in rituals — leaving cookies and milk out on Christmas Eve, for example.
To understand how children conceptualise and sort real from non-real figures, the researchers first asked 95 Australian children aged between two and eleven to rate the realness of 12 target figures on a scale from zero to eight. These included both real people (e.g. the kids’ band The Wiggles), and fictional figures (e.g. Santa, unicorns, and Harry Potter), as well as more ambiguous figures like aliens and dinosaurs. Adult participants also answered the same questions as part of a separate study.
Results suggested that children conceptualised the figures as belonging to one of four groups. The Wiggles and dinosaurs belonged to a “virtually real” group; cultural figures like Santa and the Tooth Fairy formed a second group; ambiguous figures like aliens made up another; and the final group included fictional characters like Peter Pan and Spongebob Squarepants. Adults, on the other hand, grouped figures into just three groups: real, not real and ambiguous. A second study with another set of children found a similar pattern.
As hypothesised, these groupings also conformed to a hierarchical pattern: the more culturally and evidentially supported a figure was, the more likely a child was to believe they were real. Unsurprisingly, the kids considered the “virtually real” group to be the most real — but they also believed that cultural figures were more real than other fictional characters. This makes sense when you consider the amount of “evidence” for the existence of Santa and Peter Pan, for instance: both are fictional characters, but only one has high levels of indirect and direct cultural evidence supporting it. Belief in fictional characters also, predictably, decreased with age.
One limitation of the study, however, was that children may also have been unclear on what “real” actually meant. In the case of Santa, many children may know he isn’t real in a literal sense but could have had experience “meeting” a figure in costume — 40% of children said they’d seen Santa in real life, the same number who said they’d seen The Wiggles, who are actually real. Dinosaurs, similarly, used to be real, which many children know. This knowledge may have impacted results.
Ritual seems to be a key factor here. Santa and the Tooth Fairy, as figures used to enforce normative behaviour, have huge amounts of ceremony around them, both positive and negative — the fun of receiving money under your pillow or preparing for Christmas, and the threat that fun could be taken away because of bad behaviour.
Future work could look at ritual participation, and how different emotional states and interactions impact upon childrens’ hierarchy of beliefs, as well as possible cultural differences in such rituals.