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The Fundamental Truth Halloween Reveals About Ourselves

A classic study on what it takes for us to ditch our morals.

When you think about your own morality, you like to think that it's a choice. You may have learned your sense of ethics and responsibility from your parents or your culture but ultimately, your actions, you believe, are your own. That is why it can be so disconcerting to learn that your morality may not be as under your control as you assume.

In a classic study conducted on Halloween night, researchers observed the behavior of a huge range of costumed children participating in trick-or-treating. At some houses the researchers—working with homeowners—instructed the hosts to identify neighborhood children by name when they were recognizable. In another study condition, children were left anonymous behind their masks and under their wigs.

In all cases, the kids were asked to step inside and take a single piece of candy from an alluring bowl of treats. Secretly, the researchers recorded the number of candies kids actually took. They discovered that the anonymous children were far more likely to break the rules and snatch extra candies—whole handfuls in some cases. The children who had been addressed by name, on the other hand, were far more likely to follow the rules. In the end, only 1 in 5 of the identified children grabbed extra candy while 57 percent of the anonymous kids did the same.

In instances when we lose track of our individual identity, we become disinhibited and more likely to act out in ways that we normally wouldn't. This is why crowds are more likely to erupt into looting or rock throwing even when its individuals members might not normally engage in that behavior. This lack of inhibition can work the other way as well: Some people may be more willing to lend a hand or donate ostentatious sums of money if they know they can do so anonymously.

When you slap on a Halloween mask, remember that you aren't just trying on a new set of clothes, you are trying on a new identity—with all the freedoms and responsibilities that go with it.

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is fascinated by so-called negative emotions and the way people avoid the difficult aspects of human psychology despite their benefits. He has written about these topics in his new book, co-authored with Dr. Todd Kashdan: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success. Fulfillment is available from Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell's or Indie Bound.

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