Eat, drink and be scary: Halloween hijacks social norms

It’s Halloween, and later tonight people all over America and the Western world will celebrate by asking strangers to give them treats, pulling some obnoxious pranks (read: vandalism and theft1) and/or by dressing up as something they are not. And people who don’t participate in these activities (minus the vandalism for most of us) are considered downers who can’t have fun. For many of us, Halloween is fun. Going out into the world wearing an acceptable lie is exhilarating. It’s like makeup on crack. You get to present a totally different face to the world without being branded disingenuous. You are even lauded for your pretending, with compliments and contests for the people who seem the least like themselves. For a social psychologist, it isn’t that surprising that people of all ages love Halloween, long after the candy train dries up. People have public and private selves, and Halloween gives them a chance to let their freak flags fly out in the open.

The normative acceptance of uninhibited behavior on Halloween is one of its most powerful allures. Without using drugs or alcohol, adults have very few chances to express themselves outside of the normal confines of human interaction. While children can just spontaneously pretend to be dinosaurs in the middle of the math lesson, that doesn’t exactly fly in the typical workday. Halloween comes with its own set of norms, like most holidays, called situational norms. People tend to eat similar kinds of foods, perform similar kinds of rituals, go to similar kinds of places and surround themselves with similar kinds of people. Because holidays have their own norms, they supersede the norms that people usually adhere to. While some holidays may institute more chaste norms, like Easter Sunday, some holidays encourage public intoxication and belligerent nationalism, like the Fourth of July. Halloween encourages people to wallow in a slightly darker version of themselves. To express hidden identities and indulge in desires they usually resist.

Even though we usually think of norms as being society wide, any group can institute norms for any period of time. They change over time, they change depending on the group of people you are with and they change depending on whether or not you are alone. I’m talking about eating 25 fun sized Snickers bars while you are waiting for trick or treaters, not living some sort of secret double life. People usually behave differently when they are alone. But on Halloween all bets are off. While most people wouldn’t usually wear their Merry Widow or pajamas out of the house, there are 10 such individuals packing the bar you’re at on Halloween. I know one woman who dubbed her costume “expensive prostitute.” Most people wouldn’t want to act out the role of expensive prostitute while trying to be heard at a work meeting, or while trying to get a loan at the bank, but this lady is going to be selling herself on the streets tonight in a socially sanctioned way.

It’s probably a good thing we have public and private selves. I don’t want to see you at peak weekend, in your sweatpants, with chip crumbs on your chest and the greasy sheen of Netflix reflected off your unwashed forehead. That’s you time! But it’s also good to have time when we get to decompress, and let go of our controlled behavior. Inhibition is one of the three elements of self-control, along with initiation and continuation/maintenance.2 It’s often one of the toughest challenges for us, to inhibit our natural desires to eat the candy, or to stay in bed when we need to get ready for work. It takes self-control to resist these desires, and some theorists believe that we only have a limited store of self-control to resist them with.3 When we use that self-control, we become depleted, which means that we are unable to engage in controlled behavior for a short time while we replenish our stores. This is why we are so much more exhausted when we spend an hour at a networking event, being the best version of ourselves, than we are after spending an evening with friends, where we are relaxed and less worried about adhering to norms.

Halloween is almost like a big self-control break for both adults and children. It gives us the opportunity to eat junk food with impunity, to pay money for cheap thrills, to put graveyard markers on our front lawns and to wear our underwear outside. And in the tightly controlled world that we usually live in, it’s a welcome reprieve to let go for one night. Have a safe and spooky Halloween to all from us here at SocialPsyQ!

 

  1. Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L., & Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of personality and social psychology33(2), 178.
  2. Hoyle, R. H., & Davisson, E. K. (in press). Measurement of self-control by self-report: Considerations and recommendations. In D. de Ridder, M. Adriaanse, & K. Fujita (Eds.), Handbook of self-control in health and well-being. New York: Routledge.
  3. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology74(5), 1252.

For more reading about norms:

Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The silence of the library: environment, situational norm, and social behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology84(1), 18.

Allen, V. L. (1965). Situational factors in conformity. Advances in experimental social psychology2, 133-175.

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science18(5), 429-434.

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The Salem Witch Trials: Groupthink at its worst

In honor of Halloween and all things occult, I wanted to explore a historical event I was morbidly fascinated with as a child: the Salem Witch Trials. When I was younger, I couldn’t get my hands on enough novels and non-fiction books on the subject. I read The Crucible and watched the movie, and I was also fortunate enough to have relatives who lived in Salem, MA, so I got to visit most years around Halloween. While in Salem, I would walk through the cemeteries where the alleged witches had been laid to rest and read their tombstones. These ancient tombstones actually listed the method used to kill the accused. I remember being completely engrossed in the event the more I learned about it—I couldn’t get past the swiftness of the accusations, the unfairness of the trials, the conformity, and the upturned power hierarchy of the Salem community. I didn’t necessarily think of it in those specific terms at the time, but in retrospect, my nascent social psychological wheels were turning.

What exactly happened during the Salem Witch Trials? What perpetuated the mass hysteria? Why did it take so long to stop?

Lithograph of Salem Witch Trials, 1892, by Joseph Baker

Actually, research on groupthink suggests that what happened in Salem Village* wasn’t all that unusual; terrible, yes, but surprising? Perhaps not. A few factors combined to allow for the perfect storm of the Salem Trials.

Groupthink1 is a way of thinking characterized by an excessive emphasis on group cohesion and solidarity. Often, group harmony is prioritized over making an accurate judgment, allowing for important information to be ignored. Groupthink is most likely to occur when the group is highly cohesive, isolated, stressed, has poor decision-making procedures, and a forceful leader. Nearly all of these factors existed in Salem Village during the winter of 1692, the time leading up to and including the witch trials.

Highly cohesive group and group isolation. The Salem villagers were Puritans, tightly knit together by their religious beliefs, including fear of the Devil’s work. Because of their religious convictions, recent attacks by Native Americans, and tension with the wealthier Salem Town, the Salem villagers were distrustful of outsiders, leaving them to rely primarily on each other for support.

Forceful leader. Reverend Samuel Parris, the first ordained minister of Salem Village, ruled strictly and was known for his greedy nature. Editorial note: he doesn’t seem like the type of person who would allow people to speak their mind.

High stress. The 1692 winter was a particularly harsh one, which strained Salem Village’s resources and increased their reliance on Salem Town. Adding to the strain was a number of displaced people from King William’s War, who landed in Salem Village, and a smallpox epidemic.

Poor decision-making. The trial process, a term I use loosely, allowed testimony about dreams and visions to be included, despite opposition from the respected minister Cotton Mather; likely, his voice just wasn’t loud enough to stop the momentum yet. Female children as young as four years old who were connected to accused older women, like Dorothy Good, daughter of Sarah Good, were questioned and thought to have confessed. These are just a few of the ways in which poor decision-making was employed.

So, the groundwork was there. And when groupthink emerged, it did so violently with all of its accompanying symptoms:

Belief in the moral correctness of the group. Need I remind you that these were deeply religious people? They prayed every day and considered themselves to be the elect. In other words, they believed they had been predestined for heaven, chosen uniquely by the God they believed in. As K. David Goss put it in Daily Life during the Salem Witch Trials, their Puritan faith was all-encompassing. These religious beliefs contributed to a lot of self-censorship and the pressure to conform, particularly among women, who were expected to aspire to the ideal virtuous woman as described in the bible (see Goss’s book for more). This pressure to conform and to limit personal beliefs likely increased significantly once accusations were being made, lest someone turn an accusation on someone who dared to speak her mind.

Considering the ripening groupthink conditions of the stressed and isolated place of Salem Village, the mass hysteria and frenzy of the Salem Witch Trials wasn’t completely unexpected, at least in hindsight. That it can be explained doesn’t detract from the horror, death, and upheaval that occurred. And community members of Salem did eventually put a stop to the madness, perhaps because the stress was unsustainable and damaged the group cohesiveness. The diminished cohesiveness may have allowed an opening for some powerful community members to feel comfortable enough to speak up. A public apology was eventually made in 1697 by Judge Sewall, who had overseen many of the trials, but it was too little, too late. Groupthink had left a permanent mark.

Groupthink can, and does, occur today, too. It can be avoided by having an impartial leader, being willing to seek outside opinions, creating subgroups to make decisions separately, and seeking anonymous opinions.2


*The place where the witch trials occurred was actually Salem Village, present-day Danvers, and was established several miles from Salem Town, now present-day Salem. See http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/Witch.html for more information.

1,2  Janis, I.L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Get Psyched for Halloween!

Image from Nutritious Eats

           Image from Nutritious Eats

If you’re like me, some of your favorite childhood memories are of Halloween. You get to dress up like someone or something else, go to strangers’ houses and ask them for treats, cause a little mischief and binge on candy. But the best thing about Halloween? There’s a lot of social psychology at work.

Anonymity: Anonymity may make people more susceptible to group influence.1 This could even help to account for an increase in criminal activity on Halloween. Visual anonymity, specifically, seems to increase identification with the group, be that delinquent peers or society in general.2 Some classic studies have found a direct correlation between stealing and Halloween costumes.3,4 Researchers found that trick-or-treaters who were both anonymous and with a group of other children were more likely to steal candy and money when given the chance.3 Another study found that Halloween masks could elicit a state of deindividuation*, and found evidence that children in masks were more likely to take more candy than unmasked children, when the experimenter was not in the room.4

Norms: Usually, if you knocked on someone’s door at night dressed as a blood-sucking Zombie demanding candy, people would freak out and call the police. But on Halloween, this would be expected, and norms would be altered for the night. You might even be called a party pooper if you don’t make an effort to dress in costume. These kinds of social norms have long been of interest to social psychologists. Descriptive norms are social rules transmitted by others; so when you show up to the Halloween party as the only one in costume, all of a sudden, you feel out of place, even though you would fit in at a more festive party.5 Injunctive norms speak to what should be done, or what is socially endorsed, i.e. you should go to the party in costume because you are supposed to wear a costume on Halloween.5 Social norms are often positive, but they can also lead to higher levels of conformity, riskier decisions and worse decisions through consensus.6,7,8,9 Norms are also at work when people throw costume parties, visit the pumpkin patch or go to haunted houses. Not only does the seasonal social acceptance of the activity encourage us to partake in some strange stuff, our desire to act in accordance with norms is a billion dollar industry ($11.3 to be exact).

Prosocial behavior: The act of handing out free candy to kids is both a Halloween norm, and an example of prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior is any behavior that works for the good of the group, rather than the good of the self. Things like sharing, taking turns and common courtesy are all types of prosocial behavior. Prosocial behavior has a lot of individual and societal benefits like lower perceptions of competition, higher need for achievement, higher social cognitive abilities in children and may even be linked to higher levels of altruism.10,11,12

It’s clear that our Halloween traditions involve social psychology, from the norms in place that dictate our Halloween activities, the anonymity that allows for increased mischief, and the prosocial nature of some of our Halloween traditions. So this Friday, put your SocialPsyQ to work! What are some social psychology phenomena you see on Halloween?

* Deindividuation is the loss of self-awareness in groups.

  1. Postmes, T., Spears, R., Sakhel, K., & de Groot, D. (2001). Social influence in computer-mediated communication: The effects of anonymity on group behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(10), 1243-1254.
  2. Lea, M., Spears, R., & de Groot, D. (2001). Knowing me, knowing you: Anonymity effects on social identity processes within groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(5), 526-537.
  3. Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L., & Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Social Pschology, 33(2), 178-183.
  4. Miller, F. G., & Rowold, K. L. (1979). Halloween masks and deindividuation. Psychological reports, 44(2), 422
  5. Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & L. Gardner (Eds). The handbook of social psychology, Vols. 1 and 2 (4th ed.), (pp. 151-192). New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.
  6. Sherif, M. (1937). An experimental approach to the study of attitudes. Sociometry, 1(1/2), 90-98.
  7. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70(9), 1-70.
  8. Stoner, J. A. F. (1968). Risky and cautious shifts in group decisions: The influence of widely held values. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 4(4), 442-459.
  9. Postmes, T., Spears, R., & Cihangir, S. (2001). Quality of decision making and group norms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(6), 918-930.
  10. Puffer, S. M. (1987). Prosocial behavior, noncompliant behavior, and work performance among commission salespeople. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(4), 615-621.
  11. Denham, S. A. (1986). Social cognition, prosocial behavior, and emotion in preschoolers: Contextual validation. Child Development, 57(1), 194-201.
  12. Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. A. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 101(1), 91-119.