A Surprising Number of Adults Wish They Still Believed in Santa, Says Study

One remembered punching a classmate when he learned the truth.

An estimated 85 percent of American kids believe in Santa Claus. For the most part, they do so because their parents tell them to. But that childhood bliss is short-lived: According to the preliminary results of the internationa Exeter Santa Survey, the belief that the nice old man you met at the mall is later coming to your house to give you stuff dies at roughly the same age for most people. And for many people, Santa’s death comes with a lifetime of regret.

Spoilers about Santa below.

On Friday, study lead Chris Boyle, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Exter, revealed some of the early highlights of the survey, which is still ongoing and will publish its final results in 2019. From the 1,200 responses Boyle received from adults around the world who were asked to reflect on their holiday memories, he discovered how it felt for people to realize that Santa is not this:

santa
Good Santa?

But this:

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Bad Santa.

The Bad and the Sad

The saddest part of this survey is that many adults wished they still believed in Santa Claus. Overall, 50 percent were content with knowing that Santa’s not real, but 34 percent wished they were still living in blissful ignorance.

Survey responders shared stories about when they realized they had been played: Some found price tags on their presents, some saw their presents before Christmas, and others just figured it couldn’t be true when they measured their fireplace. One adult reflected upon punching a boy at school when he told him Santa wasn’t real: He was seven at the time and went on believing for another three years. He’s probably in that 34 percent group.

The Good

Approximately 56 percent of the respondents said learning the dirty truth didn’t make them think less of adults, while 30 percent said that it did. This issue is often at the heart of the Great Santa Guilt Debate: whether or not it’s okay to lie to kids and whether or not they are damaged.

In a 2016 paper published in The Lancet, Boyle argued that lying to children about Santa could undermine their trust in their parents. Meanwhile, the University of Texas at Austin psychologist Jacqueline Wooley, Ph.D., has argued that “there’s no evidence that belief, and eventual disbelief in Santa, affects parental trust in any significant way.” This new statistic reveals that being lied to about the man in red is not really a big deal in the long run.

The Truth

In the end, a total of 72 percent of parents said they were fine with lying about Santa and spreading his myth of joy-slash-fear. These cool-as-ice parents are likely the same group as the 65 percent of people who reported that they kept on saying they believed in Santa as kids, even when they found out it wasn’t true. Boyle reported that many of the responses showed a mixed sense of “disappointment and also amusement,” which is really the meaning of Christmas.