The Seasonality of Supernatural Belief in Children

The Seasonality of Supernatural Beliefs in Children

Rohan Kapitany (1,2) & Yo Nakawake (2, 3)

  1. Lecturer, Keele University.
  2. Research Affiliate, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, Oxford University,
  3. Research Associate, School of Economics and Management, Kochi University of Technology.

Overview

Children believe in the existence of supernatural and unreal figures at rates higher than adults (see figure 1). This is particularly true for culturally supported figures like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, as well as religious figures. And while it is a truism that childrens’ belief becomes more adult-like as they age, no research to date has documented how belief in such figures longitudinally changes with age. More importantly, during periods of culturally supported endorsement (like Christmas, Easter, and when a child loses a tooth) we have no idea if belief is altered. Theory suggests that participation in ritual, as well as the provision of (indirect) evidence - in the form of gifts, chocolate eggs, and money - maintains belief generally but does the influence of such actions temporarily increase belief [1–5]? And if so, how dramatically does it influence belief prior to the event, and how long does the influence of the event last? Further, does this period provide a general credibility-boost, such that other figures are endorsed as more real during periods of support for specific figures. An illustrative example of this seasonality of supernatural belief (or at least seasonal salience) is demonstrated in figure 2, a plot of google-trends, or search terms, for specific supernatural agents. As is clear, search behavior peaks at Christmas and Easter for respective agents, while other agents - even God - has a non-seasonal distribution.

We intend to conduct a 13 month longitudinal study (from July 2021 to July 2022) in which we ask children about their endorsement for various supernatural and unreal figures once a month.

Figure 1. A re-production of figure 5 from Kapitany et al (2020) demonstrates belief in children relative to adults.


Figure 2. Frequency of Google search terms over a 12-month period.

Research Methodology.

In my own work (co-authored with others) Kapitany et al. (2020) validated a parent-directed survey protocol. Parents were given instructions and a training task to survey their childrens’ endorsement for various figures. Results showed that this method produced highly similar data to research-assistant collected data. Unpublished work has also replicated this method.

Put simply, we will recruit parents who have children aged between 5 and 10 years, and ask them to administer a simple survey once a month for 13 months. Each time-point will have an identical core: a warm-up task, and questions about the child’s belief in the following figures:

Legend: S - ‘seasonal’, F - ‘flat’, ‘D’ - ‘age related decline’.

Religious

  1. God (S)
  2. Angels (F)

Real

  1. A real person (known to the child) (F)
  2. Dinosaurs (F)

Cultural

  1. Santa Claus (S)
  2. The Easter Bunny (S)
  3. The Tooth Fairy (S)

Ambiguous

  1. Aliens (F)
  2. Dragons (F)
  3. Ghosts (F)

Fictional

  1. Princess Elsa (D)
  2. [One other fictional TV figures specified by the parent/child] (D)

Sample size.

We conducted simulations in R (code here) with the following (highly simplified assumptions). For the sake of brevity, we are simply demonstrating the effect of Santa, as it is likely the largest: Each month belief in Santa has a mean of 8.0, and a SD of 1.0, except in November, December, and January, where the mean is 8.5. We also modelled age-related declines in belief. We simulated this 5000 times with a sample of 150 children with the following regression (endorsement ~ month + month^2 + age). Our predictor of interest, month2, was observed 94.28% of the time. Figure 2 shows data generated over a single run, F(3, 1946) = 20.69, p < .001. Where Age, Month, and Month^2 were all significant predictors.


Figure 3. Hypothetical data of belief on Sanata with statistically significant effects of age, month, and month^2.

Study Costs

Collecting 150 datapoints 13 times results in 1950 datapoints. Anticipating a 15 minute study in which we pay £3.50 requires £9,555.00 (inc. VAT and service fee). Our rate of pay is comparatively high for two reasons: first, parents need their child present and so should be compensated for this, and second, we hope to compensate highly in order to avoid attrition over the course of the year.

Pre-registration and Open Science

As December is a period of peak interest, we need to begin our study in July (being equidistant from past and future Christmas periods). If we are successful in our bid, this means that there will be up to 8-months of inactivity on this project. Rather than squander this time, we intend to submit this research as a registered report at Nature Human Behavior, Evolution and Human Behavior, or British Journal of Developmental Psychology. Thus, we have not (yet) pre-registered this research, as the specific details may change in the course of pre-peer-review.

This project will involve making public a pre-print (before data collection) as part of the registered report process. Once data collection is complete, data will be fully anonymized and made publicly and freely available on the Open Science Framework.

We hope that by providing our simulation code we have demonstrated our good faith intention to be open and transparent throughout the research process (OSF | Seasonality of Superstitious Belief).

References

  1. Woolley JD, Ghossainy ME. Revisiting the Fantasy-Reality Distinction: Children as Naïve Skeptics. Child Development. 2013. pp. 1496–1510. doi:10.1111/cdev.12081

  2. Woolley JD, Nissel J. Development of the Fantasy-Reality Distinction. The Cambridge Handbook of the Imagination. 2020. pp. 479–499. doi:10.1017/9781108580298.029

  3. Kapitány R, Nelson N, Burdett ERR, Goldstein TR. The child’s pantheon: Children’s hierarchical belief structure in real and non-real figures. PLoS One. 2020;15: e0234142.

  4. Langston J, Speed D, Coleman TJ. Predicting age of atheism: credibility enhancing displays and religious importance, choice, and conflict in family of upbringing. Religion, Brain & Behavior. 2020. pp. 49–67. doi:10.1080/2153599x.2018.1502678

  5. Henrich J. The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion. Evolution and Human Behavior. 2009. pp. 244–260. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005