The holiday season is upon us, and so are its attendant myths, most prominent of which is the Santa Claus story. This is the time that many children are told about a man who lives forever, resides at the North Pole, knows what every child in the world desires, drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer and enters one’s house through a chimney, which most children don’t even have.
Given the many absurdities and contradictions in this story, it’s surprising that even young children would believe it. Yet research from my lab shows that 83 percent of five-year-olds think that Santa Claus is real.
An evolutionary advantage?
At the root of this paradox is a very basic question regarding the nature of the young child as an inherently credulous being – that is, believing everything he or she is told – versus a rational one.
The noted author and ethologist Richard Dawkins, in a 1995 essay, proposed that children are inherently credulous, and prone to believing in just about anything. He even suggested that it was an evolutionary advantage for children to believe.
He illustrated that quite convincingly with an example of a young childliving near an alligator-infested swamp. His point was that the child who is skeptical, and prone to critically evaluating his parents’ advice not to go swimming in that swamp, has much less chance of surviving than does the child who unthinkingly heeds his parents’ advice.
This view of young children who believe easily is shared by many, including 18th-century philosopher Thomas Reid, and developmental psychologists, who argue that children are strongly biased to trust what people tell them.
Not very different from adults?
Yet research from my lab shows that children actually are rational, thoughtful consumers of information. In fact, they use many of the same tools as adults to decide what to believe.
So, what are some of the tools that adults use to decide what to believe, and what evidence is there that children possess them?
I’ll focus on three: One is attention to the context in which new information is embedded. A second is the tendency to measure new information against one’s existing knowledge base. And the third is the ability to evaluate the expertise of other people.