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!
Subbotsky 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