Monday, October 31, 2011

What do Halloween and Social Psychology have in common? Deindividuation, of course

Cute trick-or-treaters or mahem-makers?
As the children take to the streets tonight in search of a trick-or-treat, you might be wondering the best way to protect your house from some heavy candy-looting. In 1976, Ed Diener and his colleagues asked a similar question, though they were more interested in the conditions that prompted trick-or-treaters to overindulge and take more than they should. Halloween is a holiday which encourages people to dress up in costumes and roam the streets in large groups - the perfect recipe for deindividuation. Deindividuation occurs when people’s own sense of individuality is diminished and can result in antisocial behaviors. Diener used Halloween as an opportunity to research how anonymity, group size, and feelings of responsibility influence people’s willingness to steal extra candy and money. 

The scene: Imagine that you come up to a house with a table, on one side is a bowl full of individually wrapped bite-sized candy bars, about 2 feet away on the other side is a bowl full of pennies and nickels. Nearby is a decorative backdrop with a peep hole that camouflages an unobtrusive observer. When you arrive at the door, a woman you have never met greets you.

The conditions: 
 Anonymity: In the anonymous condition, the woman told the trick-or-treaters to take one piece of candy each and left the room. In the identified condition, the woman asked the trick-or-treaters their names and where they lived, and then told them to take one piece of candy each and left the room.
Group size: The observer recorded whether trick-or-treaters arrived alone or in a group. 
Responsibility: The woman either did not make anyone responsible, or she told the smallest child in the group that s/he would be held responsible if any extra candy was taken. In some groups, she asked everyone’s name so that they were all identified. In other groups she asked only the name of the child held responsible, and in still others, she let them all be anonymous.

The results: As you can see from the graph below, being in a group and being anonymous both greatly increased the likelihood that kids stole extra candy or money. Children who were alone and identified stole candy 7.5% of the time, whereas children who were anonymous and in a group stole candy 57.7% of the time.

 But there was one group in which 80% of the kids stole extra candy and/or money. Who were they? When the experimenter put one child in charge, but didn’t get any of their names, trick-or-treaters were much more likely to steal. Diener anticipated this would be the case because it let the other kids off the hook, if they stole, it wasn’t their fault.

How much candy did they steal? 1.6-2.3 extra candies on average or “the amount that they could hold in their hand.”

There were also two groups that didn’t get included in the analyses – groups in which a parent was present, or groups that were so large that the experimenter stayed in the room the whole time to prevent too much Halloween mayhem from occurring. When an adult was present the incidences of stealing were very low.

Happy Halloween
The bottom line: If you don’t want kids taking off with more than their fair share tonight, separate them from the herd and encourage them to share some information with you about themselves. Or, even simpler, just make sure you are nearby when they take the candy.

Did you participate in mayhem on Halloween? Did you find yourself more likely to engage in destructive acts (egging, tping) if you were in a group and/or knew you were going to be anonymous?

The Article: Diener, E., Fraser, S., Beaman, A., & Kelem, R. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33 (2), 178-183 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.33.2.178


  1. Not really surprising that costumed and unsupervised kids would take extra candy if allowed free choice access. The better way is to simply put one piece of candy in each kid's bag rather than allow free choice.

  2. I did a similar study in my neighborhood and i found that kids around 7-9 only took one piece of candy but when the parent were present and they took more than one the kids would swarm and start taking tons of candy.

    1. Interesting! It makes sense, they probably see it as permission from the parent.

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