Field of Science

Magical thinking enhances creativity

It's tough being an atheist dad at Christmas. I mean, the kids love all the stories, the sense of drama, the sense of community and of being part of something big. They also love to think they have a magical friend who cares about them and watches over them.

But I still feel awkward looking them in the eyes and telling them that Santa is real. I guess it's the incorrigible rationalist in me. Arty types probably have it easier.

Well, here's a study that I was hoping would salve my conscience over all the porkies I've told my kids over the years. Unfortunately it doesn't quite do that. Let me explain...

Eugene Subbotsky, a psychologist at the University of Lancaster in the UK, wanted to know whether encouraging kids to think about magic would actually help them to be more creative. We know that kids are often delighted by magical thoughts, but we don't know if they are just a byproduct (an, ahem, epiphenomenon) or if they are actually contribute to their mental development in some way.

Basically, he set groups of kids down to watch clips from Harry Potter film (the first one). These clips either contained magical elements, or they did not. Before and after, they tested the kids creative powers using some standard setups (problem solving, drawing creatively, etc).

Subbotsky found that kids who watched magical scenes did actually think more creatively. The effect was quite marked. Although both groups improved, the improvement in the 'no magic' group was around 50%, whereas it doubled in the 'magical scenes' group.

Unfortunately, the results are complicated by the fact that the groups weren't matched at the start of the experiment. The kids were put into groups at random - which is the gold standard method, and is supposed to ensure that the groups are similar. For this experiment, it didn't work out. The kids in the 'magical scenes' group were actually less creative than the kids in the other group.

Although you can control for that statistically (and he did), you're left wondering if whether what you're seeing here is simply regression to the mean.

Subbotsky also showed that, although creativity increased, magical beliefs didn't. Well, actually, they did - by the end of the experiment the kids in the 'magical scenes' group were averaging around 50% higher on the magical beliefs scoring. It's just that the difference was not statistically significant.

Subbotsky concludes that watching magical scenes can increase children's creativity without increasing their magical beliefs. I'm not so convinced, based on the evidence shown.

But go ahead, bring the magic of Christmas to your kids, even if you are a stoney-hearted rationalist. It may, after all, boost their creativity!

Oh, and Merry Christmas everyone!

ResearchBlogging.orgSubbotsky E, Hysted C, & Jones N (2010). Watching films with magical content facilitates creativity in children. Perceptual and motor skills, 111 (1), 261-77 PMID: 21058605

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Why do you feel obliged to lie to your children? Many children are raised without being led to believe that Santa is real.

  2. You act like you'll be punished by some "truth god" for lying to your children when it's something they need. Have you read Ineffability of Insight by Schooler and Melcher in The Creative Cognition Approach, or the short 12/6/10 NYT article on the importance of a diffuse and open mindset to achieve insight, Benedict Carey, Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving.

  3. Fun review! Thanks

    I had to look up one of your terms. So I share my findings:

    "porkies" [UK humerous slang] = "lies"

    I loved Connie's response to OLDak -- do you have any links?

  4. The disappointment your children will feel on finding out that Santa is not real and that their parent's have been lying to them is avoidable. Don't lie.

    You shouldn't avoid deceit for extrinsic reasons (Connie's straw man). You should avoid deceit if you value your children's trust, and if you want your children to be truthful people.

  5. Someone needs to lighten up or maybe they just need a big Christmas hug from Santa.

  6. Although lots of kids happily grow up without Santa, in my small corner of England it's a cultural norm. Excluding kids from that is quite a traumatic thing to do. There's a boy with Jewish parents in my son's class, and he isn't even allowed to take part in the Christmas party, let alone the school Christmas play etc. It takes hard-hearted parents to do that, I think.

    Are kids traumatised by discovering he's not real? I guess some are, but for most it's something of a 'coming of age' rite. They aren't upset by it (or, if they are, they get over it) and maybe they learn something valuable about skepticism in the process.

    But the real reason, from my perspective, for playing out the drama, is simply that it brings magic and delight to young children. We all need myths of one sort or another, and children are not adults (from a cognitive perspective).

    It makes them happy, and the people around them, and does them no harm. And I look forward to it!

  7. I decided long ago I wouldn't lie to my son, but at the same time I didn't want to be smacking him upside the head with the hard stick of reality. So when Santa came up I replied with a question.

    Him - Papa Do you believe in Santa Clause?
    Me - Hmm, maybe the more important question is do you?

  8. The biggest reason for the Santa myth is so your kids don't realize you wasted so much money on junk. Or that you have enough to do so.

  9. This is something I struggle with with my son. He's only 7 but I have been told he is a very talented artist and his imagination is over the top. I'm with The Lorax on responding with questions and I've always kept it real with him. As you say;
    "I guess it's the incorrigible rationalist in me. Arty types probably have it easier."

    However, I attribute a lot of his creativity and thinking outside the box, from reading to him since he was a baby....everyday and every night. So I can see how the study is on target. The good news is he is still able to rationalize and is skeptic when it comes to being presented with the idea outside of a book or movie.

    The other thought I had with this is that my son would probably not want to focus on the new task presented to him as he would be too pre-occupied with the artistic visions he got from the movie and wouldn't be satisified until he got them down on paper or told a story.

    I find this topic so facinating! Thank you.

  10. I try to keep alive the sense of possibility (yes, magic) about Santa while still sticking to the facts. Here's my tactic:

  11. Each to their own, but I really enjoyed the whole Santa thing when I was growing up. You're only a kid once... make it magical. Learning he isn't real didn't leave me traumatized, I think that's just parental paranoia talking.

  12. I don't have children myself, but as an atheist, I really can't reconcile the idea of fibbing Santa Claus to my (theoretical) children. My mother didn't bring me up believing Santa Claus was real, and I don't remember any issues it caused, I just knew it was a neat story whether the other kids did or not. As for creative thinking and wonder, that can be gotten from fiction and exploration without the need for indoctrination, and I had plenty to keep my imagination fed while growing up, with books, movies and stories spun at bedtime and adventuring in the back yard. What I do regret is that I was brought up in a household believing in a magical deity that imposed moral law from above.

    Still, I don't see that it would have overly harmed me if I had been brought up believing (in Santa) and it may be an object lesson to others struggling with their other cultural beliefs.


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