Researchers find that children typically begin to believe in Santa Claus when they’re 3 or 4 years old. And that this belief stays fairly strong until they are 8 years old, when there’s a sharp drop-off in the belief that Santa Claus is real.
What’s behind this? And why is this drop-off in belief so reliably seen?
Well, in cases where someone hasn’t already sounded the alarmed and spoiled the surprise (you know, something like older siblings that spill the beans about the myth not being literally true), there’s a fairly consistent culprit: The child’s developing sense of what is and isn’t possible without violating the laws of physics as they understand them to operate. As a child gets older and gains a better grasp on what is and isn’t possible, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to believe that Santa Claus can do all the things that he’s alleged to do.
In one notable study, children ranging from 3 to 9 years old were asked to explain some of the actions that Santa allegedly takes on a typical Christmas trip. They were then tasked to assess whether a variety of physically difficult events that had nothing at all to do with Santa (some possible, some impossible) were in fact possible or not.
According to the researchers:
Children who were better at differentiating possible events from impossible events had also begun to engage with the mythology surrounding Santa at a conceptual level, questioning the feasibility of Santa’s extraordinary activities while also positing provisional explanations for those activities in the absence of a known answer. These findings suggest that children’s acceptance of testimony about Santa – and possibly other forms of counterintuitive testimony – depends not only on the testimony they receive but also on the child’s own understanding of physical possibility.
I personally don’t have a very clear memory of when, how, or why I stopped believing in Santa Claus. I do know that I did believe in Santa as a very small child and that I don’t anymore. And I’m pretty sure my belief faded when I was in elementary school.
But I do have a somewhat fuzzy memory of being mystified by the fact that such a large man could slide down so many chimneys in one night. And that he would somehow know how everyone had behaved throughout the year and what they wanted for Christmas.
It also seemed rather suspect that Santa would often wrap things in similar paper as my parents would use on my gifts from “Mom” or “Dad.”
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.