Halloween Psychology: Trick-or-Treaters Gone Bad

Halloween is a holiday know for mayhem. Youthful mischief abounds, but why? Surely there are plenty of reasons, but one of them might be the anonymity that comes with wearing a costume. When you don your Halloween costume, you’re no longer you—you’re a witch or a cowboy or a needlessly sexy Ninja Turtle. And once you shed your identity, you might also shed the compulsion to abide by society’s rules.

But what if you snapped back into your identity? Would the costume still protect you from the need to live up to your moral standards or would you behave yourself, knowing that others are aware of who you are?

When Psychologists Give Away Halloween Candy

In the 1960s, some social psychologists decided to test that question with real trick-or-treaters. In a classic study, Edward Diener and his colleagues organized a mass psychology experiment across 27 houses in Seattle, Washington on Halloween. Their subjects? More than a thousand trick-or-treating children.

candy-corn-525475_640webThey wanted to see how likely kids would be to do something bad on a night when costumes let them shed their everyday identities. To do this, they tempted kids with the chance to steal more than the single piece of Halloween candy that they were allowed to take. At each home, there was a table with a bowl of candy and sitting next to it was a bowl of loose change. Behind all of this was a backdrop with a subtle peephole, which another experimenter used to covertly observe the kids’ behavior.[1]  I’m imagining something as hokey as a Scooby Doo-esque portrait with the eyes cut out, but I’m guessing Diener et al. were more crafty.

When the kids arrived, an adult greeted them and told them that they could take one piece of candy from the bowl. Then she left to another room because she “had to work.” With the watchful eyes of the homeowner out of the picture, would the trick-or-treaters really only take one piece of candy or would they seize a golden opportunity? Heck, what about that mysterious big bowl of coins? Surely those are free for the taking.

Anonymity, Groups, and Absent Parents: Recipes for Transgression

Whether or not kids did the bad deed depended on a few other things. First, if their parents were there trick-or-treating at the door with them, the kids did a pretty good job sticking with the homeowner’s request. Only 8% of kids took more than their allotted single piece of candy if their parents were watching them.[2]  So, parents…maybe hang out with your kids more.

But let’s look at the kids who showed up without any parents. Two additional factors came into play. One was whether they approached in a group of other trick-or-treaters or whether they were by themselves. In general, kids were more likely to break the rules if they were part of a group of kids at the door.

halloween-costumeThe other important factor was whether the adult homeowner broke the child’s anonymity. Under normal conditions, kids approached this house wearing a costume, and they had never met the adult before. Sometimes, though, the homeowner asked the trick-or-treaters for their names and where they lived in the neighborhood. Suddenly, these kids were no long anonymous, and kids obeyed the rules more when they were no longer anonymous.

Putting those two elements together, though, is a recipe for who takes more than a piece of candy and who sticks to the rules. Among kids who showed up by themselves and had the adult ask for their name and living location, only 7.5% broke the rules. By contrast, for kids who could keep their anonymity and showed up to the door with a group of other children, 57.2% took more than one piece of candy and/or the money on the table.

What’s Going on Here?

As with any good psychology study, these results tell us more than just what specifically happened in the study itself. This study adds to the theory of deindividuation.

Several studies have shown how people engage in behavior that they otherwise wouldn’t when they lose their sense of personal identity (or they’re “deindividuated”). This can happen for a number of reasons, and two of them are anonymity and being in a group. The mix of the two can cause us to shed a sense of personal identity, and we instead get caught up in a group dynamic. The standards of behavior that we normally hold ourselves to seem to no longer apply.

Psychologists often explain riots as a case of deindividuation. These are moments when individual people become fused with a larger group energy and lose a sense of themselves. When that happens, they can do crazy things like light couches on fire and flip cars upside down—things I would hope nobody would do as an identified individual in the light of day.

So there we have it: a case of research being done in the context of Halloween that informs a more general social psychological theory. Come back tomorrow for a follow-up study where trick-or-treaters come face-to-face with themselves as they contemplate breaking the rules.


This article is part of 3-post series, “Halloween Psychology,” leading up to Halloween 2015 where we celebrate influential Halloween-related research in Social Psychology’s past.


Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   I’m imagining something as hokey as a Scooby Doo-esque portrait with the eyes cut out, but I’m guessing Diener et al. were more crafty.
2.   So, parents…maybe hang out with your kids more.

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