October 28, 2013 10:05 am
Updated: October 30, 2013 11:45 am

Why people act so out of character on Halloween

In this Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 photo, a zombie inmate poses for a portrait during the Halloween haunted house Terror Behind the Walls, at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Every Halloween, someone is destined to wear a highly inappropriate costume, sometimes to the point that it makes the headlines. Fortunately, this type of poor judgment is relatively infrequent.

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Much more common are those who do things on Halloween that they swear is out of character for them. Of course, the unwritten “social contract” encourages people to act in a far more sexy, silly, wild or otherwise risque manner on this one night of the year than is ordinarily permitted. Alcohol or other substances can certainly help revellers discover their inner exhibitionist or party animal on the most hallowed of evenings.

On a more psychological level, people can feel compelled to act differently than usual on Halloween (or in other contexts such as the internet) through the power of anonymity. As far back as 1971, researchers found that children who felt emboldened by their concealed identity–especially when they were in a group with other costumed troublemakers–were more likely to steal candy and money while trick or treating.

People who act out during Halloween are often not really anonymous because others around them likely know who they are, especially when many costumes do not really conceal one’s identity. This is where human psychology diverges from rationality: A study in 2010 showed that research participants were more likely to cheat in a dimly-lit room than in a brighter room, even though it was equally easy to detect their transgressions in either condition. Even more irrational is the finding from these same researchers that participants felt more anonymous and acted more selfishly when they wore dark glasses, even though they were just as identifiable as the participants wearing clear glasses. Simply the illusion of anonymity was enough to increase their susceptibility to acting less morally.

Watch Dr. Amitay discuss Halloween debauchery on the Morning Show.

The power of anonymity

Anonymity is an important component of deindividuation, which further increases a person’s probability of doing something bad or out of character. As the name implies, deindividuation refers to the temporary reduction in or loss of one’s sense of personal identity. There is also a decrease in one’s sense of personal responsibility, thus making it much easier to commit questionable or even illegal acts, as is often seen during riots and other examples of mob mentality. Wearing a costume can certainly promote deindividuation, especially when others are also dressed up. This process is strengthened even more when everyone is engaging in a similar activity such as listening to the same loud music, dancing or partying together.

The next piece of the puzzle was highlighted during perhaps the most notorious incident in the history of academia, the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which volunteers were randomly assigned to assume the roles and uniforms of prisoners or guards. The study was suddenly shut down after six days because some of the “guards” had become too sadistic and several “prisoners” suffered mental/emotional breakdowns.

Although there are many serious problems with the research and the way it has typically been presented over the past 40+ years to university classes (any Intro or Social Psychology students whose professor teaches the “standard” version of the story should complain!), this infamous study did provide some evidence that people can get caught up in the roles they find themselves in and end up doing things they would not normally do. In other words, when people put on a costume, they can begin to take on some of the traits and feelings associated with their getup, whether it’s a sexy nurse, Breaking Bad‘s Walt Whitman, the Joker or any other character.

The final point to consider is that everyone seems to harbour a deep, dark, primitive, animalistic or even sinister side of his/her being–what psychologist Carl Jung called the Shadow. Taken together, all of the psychological phenomena described above appear to make Halloween the perfect night for someone to release his or her dark side, whatever form that may take.

Jung stated that those who could acknowledge the shadowy side of themselves had a better chance of eventually incorporating it into who they were in a balanced and reasonable manner, rather than letting it unduly influence their actions from the depths of the unconscious. By the same token, those who do not want their Halloween festivities to land them in a pumpkin patch of trouble would do well to be honest about themselves and their underlying desires so that they are more likely to be the life of the party instead of bringing about the death of their career, the end of their friendships or some other ghastly consequence.



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