On the second day of Christmas…

Posted by on Dec 25, 2007 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


…we gave each other stuff. Lots of stuff.

Some good and some less so. Some expected or hoped for and some…well, let’s just say leftfield (to protect the sensitives of some of my nearest and dearest). But one of the central features of Christmas is gift exchange – a complex social behaviour which requires not just a sophisticated understanding of the the rules of a particular social network but astute judgements about the changing status of individuals relative to each other and the contexts within which all of this exchange happens.

It seems (according to New Scientist) that this is a really important way in which the illusion of Santa is actually so important and indeed useful to kids, their parents and society at large.

John Kremer of Queen’s University Belfast in the UK thinks Santa teaches children how to navigate this landscape. Kremer bases his thinking on the work of the American sociology and social psychology pioneer George Homans, whose basic thesis was that all social relationships are primarily based on reciprocity. But in our social world this is very difficult to get right – particularly because of shifting and multifaceted social relationships, complicated social mores (do you give your neighbours christmas cards?) and of course our use of material things to signal social values. And even more so for the young of our species…

“Because Santa gives presents to children but expects nothing in return, he protects them from the minefield of social exchange known as Christmas,” Kremer says. “This allows children to learn the ropes of gift-giving, without having to play an active role.”

Both the hard line fundamentalist Christians and their Atheist brethren would have us deny our children this particular piece of magic, but if Kremer’s right, while we might end up with less materialistic children they’d be less good at the stuff of all human lives (our interaction with other people).

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of the Santa Illusion, it’s interesting that the same NS piece also suggests that the way the belief is adopted, sustained and abandoned by children is through the mechanism of other people:

1. Parents and other important grown-ups are the most important individuals in teaching children to believe
2. Other people – particularly peers – are important to sustain and nurture the belief
3. But other people – peers again – are the main influence on the child losing their belief (indeed, it seems that children lose the belief long before their parents would like them to…)

This HERD thing really is everywhere, isn’t it?

Hope you had a nice day…


  1. society
    December 26, 2007

    On the second day of Christmas…

    Nice, bookmarked it!

  2. Mike Tyldesley
    December 26, 2007

    Another theorist to follow up on, Mark. I’d not come across Homans, but he looks interesting. I think that this post points to the important role of myth in social or Herd behaviour.
    I tried to post on your “illusions” piece a couple of days ago. My illusion was that I don’t take football/rugby league seriously, but that they are “only a game”. I only ever seem to feel this way when Bolton or Swinton lose, and never when they win. Have a good new year.