10/29/2011 06:21 pm ET | Updated Dec 29, 2011

Unmasking Halloween and the Power of Anonymity

For anyone with school-aged kids, one of the biggest days of the year is upon us. And as with so many of life's daily experiences, Halloween has interesting lessons to teach regarding human nature.

At my house, the schedule for this Monday includes morning Halloween school parade, afternoon trick-or-treating at local businesses, and, finally, the evening main event in the neighborhood. But even before the calendar turns to 10/31, Halloween has been a dominant topic of discussion at our place for months now.

First atop this list of talking points has been the rule at our daughters' school that prohibits students from wearing masks as part of their costume. Through informal channels, I've heard various explanations for the restriction: It allows teachers to keep an eye on where their students are. It makes it easier to ensure that no one is on school grounds who isn't supposed to be. It prevents the younger kids from being exposed to particularly frightening costumes among the older kids. And so on.

(Needless to say, the 1st and 3rd grader I live with aren't thrilled with the prohibition. In their minds, it rules out costume selections they otherwise would've considered. Darth Vader, for example, is a no-go, maintains my oldest, unswayed by my suggestion that she could simply go as Nearly Dead Darth Vader, helmetless as he is at the end of the final movie.)

But whether or not local school officials are aware of it, there's yet another, perhaps less obvious reason for banning Halloween masks (and ours hardly seems to be the only school to have such a rule): no mask means no anonymity.

While there may be a variety of reasons why Halloween has come to be a time of pranks, mischief, and even more serious forms of misbehavior, disguise certainly plays a major role. When people can't tell who you are, there's little reason to fear that your actions will lead to negative consequences. Moreover, simply feeling like we're anonymous is enough to free us from the normative constraints -- the unwritten rules of civilized society -- that usually govern behavior.

For example, in a clever Halloween research study conducted years ago by Ed Diener and colleagues, researchers unobtrusively observed over 1,000 kids trick-or-treating. The children were instructed that they could take one -- and only one -- piece of candy from a bowl inside a house. The researchers surreptitiously watched and recorded what happened next.

As you might expect, free candy is hard to resist. And visiting kids were all too eager to follow the lead of the costumed gluttons who preceded them: 83 percent took extra candy when the first kid in their group did likewise.

However, under some circumstances the kids were less likely to break the rules. Namely, when the adult at the door had previously asked the children their names and what street they lived on (stripping them of their anonymity and reminding them of their individuality) candy-theft conformity dropped to 67 percent.

And what about those little ghouls and goblins with the double confectionary misfortune of being asked their name and arriving to the house solo, without anyone to set a bad example before them? A paltry 8 percent left with extra candy.

The morals of the story? First, masks do more than make it less likely that we'll get caught when misbehaving. Wearing masks, hoods, costumes, and anything else that obscures identity or produces anonymity also makes it easier for us to do that which we might otherwise hesitate to do. Just ask Guy Fawkes acolytes. Or the Klan.

And second, it definitely pays to learn the names of the neighborhood kids. Doing so just might save you from overzealous candy withdrawals, toilet-papered trees, and a variety of other Halloween unpleasantries.

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