Why is my Candy Bowl Empty?

When you think about trick-or-treating, you might remember types of houses you visited either as a child or with your children. There was always the spooky house with the realistic decorations, the house that gave out really awful candy, and the most perplexing house of all: the house with the unattended candy bowl. Every Halloween there seems to be at least one house with an unattended candy bowl and a sign that says “take one”. This candy bowl presents quite a dilemma for trick-or-treaters. Do you obey the sign and only take one piece of candy? Or should you take an extra piece? Or should you just dump the whole bowl of fun-sized snickers into your bag and go? No one is going to find out what you did, so what do you decide to do?

This dilemma was turned into an interesting study of anonymity and loss of personal accountability in groups. In 1976, Edward Diener and colleagues conducted a study observing 1,352 trick-or-treaters to see under what circumstances children would take extra candy from an unattended bowl. They believed that children would be more likely to take extra candy when they were anonymous, when they were in a group rather than alone, and when one member was held responsible for the entire group’s behavior.

To study this, the researchers had female experimenters hand out candy at homes throughout the city. Trick-or-treaters would naturally come to the houses either alone, in groups or with parents. For the children who came without parents, the experimenter would identify some children by asking for their name and would leave others anonymous. Children who came with parents became their own special category. The experimenter would then tell the children that they could take one piece of candy, but then say that she had to go back into the house.

For some of the children who came in groups, the experimenter would designate the smallest person in the group (who was least likely to have a strong influence on the group) as being responsible for any extra candies that were missing. In the first condition, none of the group member were anonymous, in the second, only the responsible child was non-anonymous, and in the third, all group members were anonymous. The experimenter then went inside the house and a hidden observer recorded how many children took more than one piece of candy.

The researchers found was when a parent was present, only 8% of children disobeyed the experimenter’s instructions to take one piece of candy. When the children were non-anonymous without parents, 7.5% of children who were alone and 21% of children in groups took extra candy. When the children were anonymous, that number rose to 21% of children who were alone and 58% of children who were in groups. There was a similar pattern when the experimenter designated one person as being responsible for making sure everyone only took one piece. When none of the group members were anonymous, only 10.5% took extra candy. That number rose to 27% when only the responsible child was non-anonymous, and jumped to 80% when all of the group members were anonymous!

So, children who were anonymous were more likely to take extra candy, particularly if they were in a group and someone else was being held responsible for the group’s behavior. Anonymity has been found to increase antisocial, impulsive, and unethical behaviors because the rule-breakers believe they can’t be caught. Being in a group only worsens this because it diffuses responsibility across the group and lessens personal accountability. When one anonymous group member is held responsible for the group’s actions, this further absolves the other group members of responsibility. So if you’re thinking of setting out an unattended candy bowl this Halloween, be aware that trick-or-treaters, particularly those in groups, are probably going to take more than one piece.

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 Psychology, 33(2), 178-183.

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