Santa ClausFather Christmas is real; I know I saw him in our local shopping centre the other day. And only last week I was speaking with some young school children who all told me how they could spot the “real” Santa; apparently the real one wears boots, does not have a watch and wears glasses on the end of his nose. If they visit a grotto and discover the Father Christmas wearing a watch, they know he is a “helper” Santa. At a very young age, children realise quickly that Father Christmas cannot be in every shop all at the same time – the kids are not daft…! So, they spend their time assuming that every Santa they meet is fake, looking for signals that he may be the “real one”.

New research tells us what is going on in their brains. In a study looking at whether or not we believe a work of art is genuine or fake, neuroscientists have been able to demonstrate that different processes are happening deep inside our head depending on whether we think we are looking at the real thing or not. When people believed they were looking at a real Rembrandt the pleasure centres of their brain were highly active. But when they were told they were looking at a fake (even if it was genuine) their decision-making centres of their brain became active. In other words, when we believe something is not the genuine article we invoke brain processes that help us to decide what to do about it.

This has an important implication online. It is really easy for anyone to set up a fake bank website, that looks completely genuine. If you believe it is genuine, because it looks and feels like the real thing, you will happily enter your log-in details and then hey-presto you have given your password to some crook on the other side of the planet who mines your real bank account for your stash of cash. This is known as “phishing” and in spite of the high profile media coverage it gets, people are still sucked in every day. This new brain research suggests that because we accept the website as genuine, not fake, the brain processes that would help us determine whether or not it is real simply do not come into play.

However, if we were to believe that every website we visited was fake, then we would – rather like those children sitting in front of a shopping centre Santa – bring our decision-making centres of the brain into play, searching for signals that might help us work out whether or not we are looking at the real thing. You could do yourself a financial favour if every time you logged into your online bank you assumed it was a fake site.

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