Discover more from Overcoming Bias
Santa: Naughty Or Nice?
Imagine you managed an organization that could:
Deliver several pounds of goods undetected and unstoppable, into several hundred million homes worldwide all on the same night, and to select which among thousands of possible goods go to which homes.
Manufacture many tens of dollars worth of state of the art goods, distributed among thousands of types of goods, for each of those homes.
Revamp your manufacturing line yearly, to keep up with changing conditions.
Track the behavior of billions of people in detail, and know their parents standards for “naughty” or “nice”, enough to classify as naughty or nice.
Estimate what goods people want, as accurately as could their parents.
Do all this year after year, always on the same day, whether others liked it or not.
Do all this completely “off the grid,” at an undisclosed location in complete secrecy, with unidentified members who never talk to anyone about their activities, who use no noticeable inputs from elsewhere, and who have no noticeable waste emissions.
Now consider what you could accomplish with such capabilities. Toward the naughty side, you could achieve a military takeover of most of the world, and maintain totalitarian control thereafter. Cooperative homes get good stuff; uncooperative homes get bombs; pretty soon they’d fall in line.
On the nice side, you could deliver food, medicine, tools, and self-defense weapons to a bottom billion of the world’s poor, sick, or oppressed. You could also identify and punish the world’s corrupt and criminal, and reward the innovative and generous. You could take a huge bite out of poverty, crime, corruption, and oppression.
Clearly Santa is one very powerful dude; the whole world pretty much hangs on his choice. So what does Santa actually do? He gives toys to billions of children, mostly ignoring adults. He gives far more to rich kids than to poor kids, and he greatly favors cultures that celebrate his name over others. He mostly ignores his ability to sort people into naughty and nice; they are pretty much all labeled nice. (Have you ever even heard of a kid who got coal? Wouldn’t that make the news?)
So where does this put Santa on the naughty vs. nice spectrum? I’d say “mildly positive eccentric.” Yes he is clearly far less naughty than he could be, but he is also far less nice than possible. He uses his abilities to help others, and his attention is admirably global. But he helps far less than he could, he chooses his own rather odd way to help, and he prefers to help high status folks who celebrate his eccentric contribution. Apparently even in our dreams this is about as much as we dare hope for from a human, no matter how powerful. Deep down we know human charity is not about help, even if it does sometimes help.
Added 7:30p: Why, over the last century, do parents lie more about Santa to make kids happy, with kids more dissappointed to learn the truth, and yet finding out more often from those same parents? Source:
A study from 1896 involving 1,500 children aged 7 to 13, which was repeated in 1979. … More than 22 percent in the 1896 study admitted to being disappointed compared with 39 percent in the 1979 study. But only 2 percent and 6 percent, respectively, felt betrayed. … Close to 25 percent of children in the 1896 study learned the truth about Santa from their parents, compared with 40 per cent in 1979. … In 1896, 54 percent of parents said they perpetuated the myth of Santa since it made their children happy; compared with 73 percent in 1979 and 80 percent in 2000.
Added 23Dec: Adam Ozimek riffs wittily.