The Santa delusion

January 2, 2008

I finally started to catch up on reading this week, and turned to the Christmas edition of New Scientist which has this interesting article: The Santa delusion, is it harmless fantasy or cruel deception. It contains a survey of 1000 adults asking when they stopped believing in Santa. Incredibly a third say at ten or over and 9% pulled the wool from their eyes before they passed the age of five. Now I tried a quick survey of my own family, and despite greater proximity in time than adults neither of my children have any idea when they lost their belief (not do I for that matter), so I really don’t believe the results. When children learn things and who from is of course an interesting topic. Facing up to the Birds and Bees talk to my son many moons ago, I was told he already knew everything as his elder sister had sat him down and with two spoons explained the whole process; I still don’t know how and I don’t want to know come to think of it. But we bought new spoons ….

The thing which stood out for me in the article however was the incredible reported statement from one John Kremer, reader in psychology at Queen’s University, Belfast quoting and building on work by American psychologist George Homans who argued that all social relationships are based on reciprocity and the balancing of rewards and costs. In the context of Santa this leads Kremer into absurdity.

This net-reward theory, for Kremer is starkly revealed at Christmas. He argues that each christmas gift has to be matched in value, or we risk embarrassment or worse. Well OK, but now he proceeds: Children find themselves in this intricate web of exchange without the necessary social skills, nor indeed the resources, to become active participants. Santa now becomes the perfect answer to this problem: because Santa gives presents to children but expects nothing in return, he protects them from the minefield of social exchange known as Christmas. This allows Children to learn the ropes of gift giving, without having to play an active role. For Kremer the Santa myth is a unique secular product of western capitalism and provides an introduction to materialism.

This is an example of assuming homo economicus over homo naturalis; assuming that everything has a rational, and economic cause or reason; interpreting everything as a power relationship or game. There is a whole body of social science which cannot break out of this particular model. It seems to be linked into both the behaviorist and information processing models that have dominated organisation theory over the past few decades. Its a pity really because Cognitive Science has moved on. Post natal plasticity of the human brain, means that for children a significant amount of the cognitive processes are carried out by parents and peer groups. There is no particular reason for the patterns laid down by those processes to require economic reciprocation. The Santa myth has many complex origins and is just one of panoply of myth structures that we weave for our children. The Sandman, the tooth fairy and many others provide a rich and imaginary universe in which we and our children can delight. Gifting is a part of what we are, but gifting does not require reciprocation of value per se.

It is a nonsense logically as well. All those presents under the Christmas tree have labels on that such as from Mummy and Daddy or from Aunty Ruth or whatever. As they are opened records are maintained so the thanks you letters can be produced. All of this, while the Santa story is told and believed but as a myth not as a literal entity. Children have much fluidity here and are more than capable of handing the confusions and complexities, even the contradictions. It’s a part of growing up. Removing ambiguity would not help the children, anymore that pseudo economic models.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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