Friday, October 30, 2009

It bears repeating: Halloween edition

Here's a friendly reminder. What follows is nothing especially new to me, but given that Halloween is tomorrow, bears repeating:
More evidence that Americans increasingly live in a climate of fear of their own making.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the tradition of Halloween trick-or-treating came under attack. Rumors circulated about Halloween sadists who put razor blades in apples and booby-trapped pieces of candy. The rumors affected the Halloween tradition nationwide. Parents carefully examined their children's candy bags. Schools opened their doors at night so that kids could trick-or-treat in a safe environment. Hospitals volunteered to X-ray candy bags.

In 1985, an ABC News poll showed that 60 percent of parents worried that their children might be victimized. To this day, many parents warn their children not to eat any snacks that aren't prepackaged. This is a sad story: a family holiday sullied by bad people who, inexplicably, wish to harm children. But in 1985 the story took a strange twist. Researchers discovered something shocking about the candy-tampering epidemic: It was a myth.

The researchers, sociologists Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi, studied every reported Halloween incident since 1958. They found no instances where strangers caused children life-threatening harm on Halloween by tampering with their candy.

Two children did die on Halloween, but their deaths weren't caused by strangers. A five-year-old boy found his uncle's heroin stash and overdosed. His relatives initially tried to cover their tracks by sprinkling heroin on his candy. In another case, a father, hoping to collect on an insurance settlement, caused the death of his own son by contaminating his candy with cyanide.

In other words, the best social science evidence reveals that taking candy from strangers is perfectly okay. It's your family you should worry about.
--From pp. 13-14 of Chip Heath & Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
One reason for the continued popularity of that myth is the availability heuristic. In a nutshell, the more easily we can recall examples of an event (real or imagined), the more likely that we will overestimate or exaggerate the probability of that event's occurrence. Vivid stories about kids being poisoned by candy or harmed by razor apples collected during the course of Trick-or-Treating are ones that will stick in memory and will be easily recalled later. There's also an element of a sleeper effect going on as well. Even though the urban legend surrounding Halloween candy tampering was debunked about 22 years ago, belief in the legend continues to persist. My guess is that folks remember the basic gist of the stories that have been passed down over the last few decades without necessarily recalling that the sources of those stories were long ago demonstrated false.

This is one of those occasions where I can safely say, "don't worry; be happy." As for ourselves, we'll just keep celebrating Halloween like we do every year, and just make sure that the kiddos don't overdo it on the candy.

P.S.: See the story of the urban legend on snopes.com.

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