Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Santa Claus is a Fraud

Spoiler alert! (Sorry if this crushes any dreams)

When you’re a little kid, you’re willing to believe just about anything your parents tell you. Not only are you exceptionally gullible, but everything you know, you’ve learnt from them. They keep you safe and love you and you trust them. So the notion of a chubby old man flying across the globe in a reindeer-led sleigh, who delivers presents to all the ‘good’ children of the world in just one night, seems perfectly plausible. As a result, children in many Western cultures of Christian faith are brainwashed into believing that Santa Claus is a real person who jumps down the chimney (or in the case of my own chimney-less childhood home, opens the front door with a ‘magic key’) and puts their Christmas gifts under the tree every year on Christmas eve. I hate to break it to you, but this simply isn’t true…

This example of brainwashing can be explained using the concept of source credibility. Research has been conducted to examine the impact of this variable across many social situations involving the communication of messages and ideas. The literature generally acknowledges that the more credible people deem the source of a message to be, the more likely they are to believe said message, or be persuaded by it. This is because they view the credible source as a more likely way to ensure that their beliefs or attitudes are correct.

One study which provides evidence to support this effect is by Hovland and Weiss (1951). A total of 223 participants had one of four different topics presented to them by either a source of high credibility or low credibility (determined by researchers). An example used is the topic of whether anti-histamine drugs should be sold without a doctor’s prescription, presented in either a Journal of Biology and Medicine (high credibility) or a mass circulation monthly magazine (low credibility). Participants were then administered an opinion questionnaire in which they were asked to rate the trustworthiness of the source.

Some of the key results are illustrated in the figure below. The first source for each topic is the high credibility source and the second is the low credibility source. As the figure shows, participants rated high credibility sources as significantly more trustworthy than low credibility sources for all four of the topics (an average of 78% more trustworthy). Therefore, these findings support the idea that higher levels of credibility of a source lead to higher levels of trustworthiness, and in turn believability of the source’s message.

In conclusion, this effect is likely to be a reason why children are brainwashed into believing that Santa Claus is a real person who puts their presents under the tree every Christmas morning. To a child, the most credible source would be authoritative adults, their parents and teachers, who introduce and reinforce this ideology until the child is old enough to know better. They trust these sources and so take their message to be true.

Hovland, C. I., & Weiss, W. (1951). The influence of source credibility on communication effectiveness. Public opinion quarterly, 15(4), 635-650.

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