Jacqueline Woolley, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has conducted a series of studies involving Santa, the Tooth Fairy and a newly made-up character known as the “Candy Witch” to examine how children distinguish between real people and make-believe:
In one study involving 91 children, Dr. Woolley asked young kids if a number of people and characters, including Santa and the garbage man, were real. She found that 70% of 3-year-olds reported that Santa Claus was real, while 78% believed in the garbage man. By age 5, kids’ certainty about the garbage man grew, and Santa believers peaked at 83%. It wasn’t until age 7 that belief in Santa declined. By 9, only a third believed in Santa while nearly all reported the garbage man was real.
So, “if kids have the basic distinction between real and not real when they’re 3, why do they believe in Santa until they’re 8?” says Dr. Woolley.
The researchers found that while children as young as 3 understand the concept of what is real and what isn’t, until they are about 7 kids can be easily misled by adults’ persuasive words or by “evidence.” They hold onto their beliefs about some fantastical characters — like Santa — longer than others, such as monsters or dragons. Most of the kids in the study were Christian, and the numbers of those who believed in Santa would likely be smaller if there were children of other religious backgrounds in the sample, says Dr. Woolley.
Logically, from what young kids observe, it makes sense to think that Santa is real, says Dr. Woolley. And Santa and the trash collector share certain characteristics. Both are people whom kids have heard about but have likely never met before. There is proof for Santa’s existence — the gifts that appear on Christmas morning — as well as for the garbage man’s — he makes trash disappear — even though kids don’t usually see them in action. A 5-year-old has the cognitive skills to put together the pieces of evidence, but because the pieces are misleading, he or she comes to the wrong conclusion. Younger children may not have the cognitive skills to put the pieces of evidence together, so may in fact be less likely to believe in Santa’s existence. The realness of some other characters, such as Sesame Street’s Elmo, can perplex kids because they know Elmo is a puppet, but does that make him real or not?
Dr. Woolley has also looked to see what types of cues and contexts are most convincing to children. In another experiment involving 44 children, her research team went into preschoolers’ classrooms and told them about a new character dubbed the Candy Witch, a friendly woman who arrives on Halloween and replaces the candy kids have collected with a toy. The researchers showed the kids a picture of the witch, and in some cases told the parents to provide “evidence” of the witch’s existence by making the candy and toy swap at home.
Nearly two-thirds of the children were convinced that the Candy Witch was real. Those kids who were “visited” by the witch were more convinced of it. And, like with Santa Claus, older preschoolers, who were on average 5 years old, were more convinced than younger preschoolers who averaged 3.5 years old. These results were published in the journal Developmental Science in 2004.