Stick figures dressed as a ghost, witch, and devil are spooked by a brain costume.
Hi, there

What does behavioral science have to do with Halloween? Everything.

Our funny brains and the people who study them can explain a ton about the spookiest time of year. Like what makes it so spooky? Which kids are most likely to steal unsupervised candy? And why do we, adult members of society, love dressing up like pirates and witches with such a vengeance?

If these are the questions that plague you every October, you’re in the right place. Standing on the shoulders of our Halloween-loving behavioral forefathers, we present to you our first-ever Halloween newsletter. Get ready for tricks, treats, and the behavior behind it all. 

Happy spooky season,
Sarah and the candy-loving goblins @ TDL

📧 Sign up for the newsletter here for more eerie insights.
Today’s topics 👀
👻  DEEP DIVE: The Spookiest Psychology
🎼  FIELD NOTES: This is Your Brain on Music
🍬 VIEWPOINTS: Trick-or-Treating, Peer-Reviewed
The Spookiest Psychology

+ That’s disgusting. Sticking your hand in a bowl of worms? Seeing an ooey, gooey brain? Why do some people get more ‘grossed out’ than others? It all ties back to our moral beliefs. Learn more in our only PG-13 podcast episode, featuring disgust expert Dr. Yoel Inbar.

+ Ghost therapy. Playacting the dark and horrendous can help us get over our fears. Neurobiological research shows that phobias can improve after reducing the fear sensitization pathway that activates our fight-or-flight. Halloween is, in other words, “mass fear extinction therapy.”

+ Urban legends, real fears. Should you be worried about razor blades in apples? While the phenomenon has been debunked, the 70s were awash with murky news stories about heroin and sewing needles hidden in candy. But urban legends can often be explained by larger cultural and political fears.

+ Why do adults love Halloween? Adult costume sales are at an all-time high. And Halloween has become one of the biggest drinking days of the year in the U.S. Why? According to sociology professor Linus Owens, it’s all about identity. Emerging adulthood – typically defined as the 20s and 30s – is a time of self-expression and cultural connection. And what better way to celebrate both than dressing up as Margot Robbie’s roller-skating Barbie?
FIELD NOTES: This is Your Brain on Music

Wind whistling through the trees? Unexpected lightening? Distant howling? What kinds of sounds make you scared?

Music has a drastic impact on how we view the world around us. No one knows that better than Made Music Studio, a soundscape designer for Disney, NPR, and Amazon Music.

Made Music Studio approached TDL to collaborate on better understanding the psychological and behavioral effects of sound. We dug deep and conducted a few experiments to find out which sounds can improve customer experiences – even the tedious ones, like waiting around. You can read the full case study here

A masked duo plays the violin.
Trick-or-Treating, Peer-Reviewed

+ Three Musketeers or Milky Way? When given the option to pick two treats, kids will go for one of each. But when selecting one candy at a time, they’ll repeatedly pick their favorite. This trick-or-treating study from Read and Lowenstein perfectly demonstrates naive allocation – and adults do it all the time. 

+ Are children thieves? Just in groups. An observational study of 1300 trick-or-treaters found that children were most likely to steal candy – and money – when they were anonymous and in a group, often following the lead of the first child to steal. 

+ The candy elasticity of political support. Will extra candy make kids pick a Republican-decorated hand-out over a Democratic one? Far less than you might think. The study, conducted in both 2008 and 2012, found that kids over 9 were much more likely to be swayed by extra candy than little ones. 

+ Thanks, Obama! In 2010, the former First Lady launched a campaign to promote a healthy lifestyle among children. It had an impact: A study of 1200+ kids over three years found that a picture of Michelle Obama’s face made trick-or-treaters 19% more likely to pick fruit over candy. 

+ Candy bar inflation. According to the National Confectioners Association, 15% of houses give out full-sized candy bars. But once you start, it’s hard to stop: behavioral economists suggest maximizing satisfaction by focusing on your consumers’ anchor point. In other words, does that little goblin expect a full-size KitKat again this year?
Graph depicting how much Americans planned to spend for Halloween from 2010 to 2020. Adults planned to spend ~$67 in 2010 and ~$87 in 2020.
How much do Americans plan to spend on Halloween over the years? Data from the National Retail Federation
Functional Fixedness

Where children might see robots, spaceships, or Spongebob, adults might only see an old cardboard box.

The grown-up inability to see beyond an item’s traditional use is called functional fixedness – and it’s one of the rare biases that appear as we age.

Five-year-olds showed no sign of functional fixedness in a study from the University of Essex. But as early as age 7, we start to prescribe predetermined meanings to the world around us. A box becomes…well, a box.

If our perception of the world is too objective, it impedes our creativity and problem-solving skills. But there are a few ways to jumpstart our ability to think outside the box, like abstract thinking and getting interdisciplinary.

What’s new at TDL?

Know a university student who might be interested in our writing contest? You can find the competition guidelines here

TDL is hiring! We’re hiring for a number of positions, both remote and based in our Montreal office. Some open roles include: 
  • • Associate Project Leader
Find out more by visiting our careers portal
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