In the Santa line, visions of boredom, not sugarplums

Researcher observes cynicism among youths


John W. Trinkaus is a professor of management as well as a Santa researcher.

So when he makes a list, he checks it twice.

In all three Santa Claus lines he surveyed this season - two in malls on Long Island and one in a New York City department store - more than 90 percent of the children were not smiling. On his six-emotion scale, he rated them "indifferent" or "hesitant."

"They were poker-faced," he said. "It was, `OK, you want me to do this, I'll do this.'"

He rated 1 percent of the children "terrified." That equaled the proportion who were "exhilarated" and the proportion who were "happy" combined.

Finding so much cynicism and ennui in those so young surprised and saddened Trinkaus, 78, who is an emeritus professor at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College in Manhattan.

"Around here, Santa Claus is yesterday's hero," he said. "Christmas is no big deal. In my childhood, you got toys on Christmas and your birthday, and that was it. Now it's a materialistic society, and you get things year-round. No one gets excited."

He has observed this holiday season, he said, that the parents at least pretended to be happy, while the Santas "looked kind of beat."

Trinkaus acknowledged that his research had limitations. For one, he didn't interview the children. "I tried to fade into the woodwork," he said. "I don't want to be seen looking at kids too much, or they'll throw me in jail."

And, although he tried to measure boredom objectively, the best scale he could find was a set of facial pictures that doctors use to describe children's pain levels.

That kind of survey has long been Trinkaus' semiserious specialty. Since 1984, he has been publishing brief papers in journals, among them Psychological Reports and Perceptual and Motor Skills, on subjects including:

Are the cars illegally parked in handicapped-only spaces usually cheap or expensive?

What percentage of college students wear baseball caps backward?

How many shoppers in the "10 Items or Less" line have more than 10 items?

Those papers and others won him an Ignobel Prize in Literature this year from the Annals of Improbable Research, which awards satires on the Nobel Prize each year.

Marc Abrahams, the Ignobel administrator, suggested the project to Trinkhaus.

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