Winchester academic claims fake Santas do not ruin the magic of Christmas

A senior lecturer at the University of Winchester has found evidence to suggest that young children can believe in fantasy characters, such as Father Christmas, while also identifying when someone is pretending to be one.

The findings emerged from Chartered Psychologist Dr Louise Bunce’s research in collaboration with Professor Paul Harris from Harvard University. They interviewed 60 three- to five-year-old children plus 20 adults to find out whether they believed in fictional characters and whether they could distinguish between a person just dressing up pretending to be a character from the real version of the character.

“Parents may worry that if their child sees lots of different people dressing up as Santa then this will erode their child’s belief in him,” said Dr Bunce. “However, my research suggests that young children are good at spotting when people are just dressed up as fictional characters, and this does not affect their belief that those characters are ‘real’.”

The results showed that 75 per cent of the children and adults could identify an impersonator. However, two-thirds of the three- to four-year-olds continued to think their fantasy heroes were real, without recognising the flaw in their beliefs. In contrast, only a third of the five-year-olds wrongly believed that fictional characters lived in the real world.

Dr Bunce previously found that children often ask ‘Is Father Christmas real?’, but mean ‘Is he the real one, or just someone dressing up as him?’ So despite having doubts about whether a particular version of him is genuine, they still believe in the real Father Christmas.

Dr Bunce added: “The scientific study of child development is vitally important for understanding how we think and learn. Psychology has revolutionised our ideas about how the human mind develops and this knowledge can be applied to improving all areas of children’s lives.”

Dr Bunce and Professor Harris’ research paper, entitled Is it real? The development of judgments about authenticity and ontological status, has been published in the journal Cognitive Development and is available to download at the journal’s website