It suggests that young children can tell the difference between someone pretending to be a fantasy character but still believe that character really exists.
Researchers chartered psychologist Dr Louise Bunce from the University of Winchester and Professor Paul Harris from Harvard University set out to find out whether pre-school children believed in fictional characters and whether they could distinguish between a person just dressing up pretending to be a character from the real version of the character.
They interviewed 60 three- to five-year-old children and 20 adults and showed them pictures of well-known TV fictional characters, including Bob the Builder and Postman Pat, alongside pictures of people dressing up as these characters and asked them whether they ‘lived in the real world’ or whether they were the ‘real’ fictional character.
The findings back up Dr Bunce's previous research, which found that children often ask ‘Is Father Christmas real?’, but really mean ‘Is he the real one, or just someone dressing up as him?’
The results showed that 75 per cent of the children and adults could identify an impersonator. However, two-thirds of the three- to four-year-olds continued to think their fantasy heroes were real. In contrast, only a third of the five-year-olds wrongly believed that fictional characters lived in the real world.
‘Parents may worry that if their child sees lots of different people dressing up as Santa then this will erode their child's belief in him,’ said Dr Bunce.
‘However, my research suggests that young children are good at spotting when people are just dressed up as fictional characters, and this does not affect their belief that those characters are “real”.’
Parents need not worry because despite having doubts about whether a particular version of him is genuine, young children still believe in the real Father Christmas, she said.
- Dr Bunce and Professor Harris’ research paper, entitled Is it real? The development of judgments about authenticity and ontological status, has been published in the journal Cognitive Development and is available to download here