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Halloween Psychology: How Mirrors Keep Kids in Line


A couple days ago, I posted about a massive experiment on more than 1,000 trick-or-treaters in Seattle. The trick-or-treating research didn’t end there!

Just a few years later, Edward Diener and his colleagues reported another study that tested how likely trick-or-treaters would be to break the rules. The last study looked at the influence of losing a sense of your identity. This time, though, the question was how self-awareness can help us obey societal standards.

The Power of a Mirror

mirrorYou might be surprised to learn how the presence of a mirror can change the way people think about themselves. In fact, you may have had the experience of walking down the street and all of a sudden, you’re walking alongside a building with reflective windows and you’re now conscious of yourself.

A mirror brings you face to face with who you really are—literally and figuratively! Although during the course of life, we aren’t always focused on ourselves and who we are, but when we look in a mirror, we shift focus to ourselves.

All of this points to a creative opportunity for psychological research. How can psychologists study self-awareness without directly telling people to focus on themselves? Just put a mirror in the room. It sounds simple and maybe a little crazy, but it works! People act differently when there’s a mirror. In particular, when people are focused on themselves, they are more sensitive to what they “should” be doing.

Self-Awareness and Stealing Candy

That’s all great, but what’s this got to do with Halloween? Well, in another big field experiment, psychologists studied the behavior of 363 trick-or-treaters, and like in the previous study, they created an obvious “should”: taking only one piece of candy when they arrived at the house.

halloween_ghostSo children arrived at a house on Halloween[1]  In this study, the researchers only considered kids who went to the door without their parents. and were greeted by the owner, who said that they could take one piece of candy from a bowl but that she had to get back to work in another room. In other words, kids were faced with a dilemma: they should only take one piece of candy but they could take more than one. What to do!?

In a clever twist, however, half of the time, there was a large mirror behind the bowl of candy but the rest of the time, there was no mirror. The idea was that when people could see themselves, they would think twice about a temptation and instead do what they should do.

That’s exactly what they found. Whereas 28.5% of kids broke the trick-or-treating rules under normal conditions, only 14.5% broke the rules when a mirror was present. In fact, when kids were “individuated” (i.e., they said their name and where they lived), only 9% of kids took more than one candy when a mirror was present.[2]  It was also the case that the mirror only had an impact for older kids (i.e., kids older than 9 years old), which means the capacity for self-awareness might not be as strong in very young kids.

Reflecting on Self-Awareness

One conclusion you can draw from this study is that you should set a mirror next your bowl of candy this Halloween. That’s just one implication, though. The bigger point is about what happens when we become aware of ourselves. When we take a moment to focus inward on ourselves, we become more aware of the person we think we should be.

It’s the same with any temptation: when you feel pulled to do something that you know you shouldn’t do, face yourself and see yourself doing it. It’ll focus you on the “should” and not just on the temptation.

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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.   In this study, the researchers only considered kids who went to the door without their parents.
2.   It was also the case that the mirror only had an impact for older kids (i.e., kids older than 9 years old), which means the capacity for self-awareness might not be as strong in very young kids.

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