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How to trick dumb kids into eating less Halloween candy

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How can a mirror cause dramatic behavioral changes in kids?


First, I should acknowledge that the kids are not really dumb because of the psychological technique I’m going to describe below, but can’t we all agree that kids are pretty dumb in general? Come on. My parents just told me a story about how, when I was a kid, my Dad once cut a grapefruit for me and sprinkled sugar on it. I screamed and screamed for FIFTEEN MINUTES about how I didn’t want sugar on it. When my dad finally said, “Ok ok” and took the sugar off with a spoon, I still screamed because I didn’t want THAT grapefruit. I feel sorry for my dad, 24 years later, and I hope you see why I make fun of dumb kids now. So I’m delighted when I can trick them.

In 1979, researchers Beaman, Klentz, Diener, and Svanum wrote a terrific piece of research involving Cooley’s Looking Glass Self, which basically points out that we are not independent individuals as we like to think. Instead, we’re a product of our surroundings, including how we think others think of us, and we act accordingly. For example, if I believe other people think of me as an entrepreneur, I’m more likely to act entrepreneurially so I can continue developing that positive judgment.

They made this practical using an experiment with children and Halloween. Since I know many of you are illiterate and only read blogs for information, I took the trouble of going through the literature for you. Remember these from college?

Picture 4

The researchers decided to see how they could apply the looking-glass principle to change children’s behavior. To do that, they tested 349 children who were trick-or-treating by setting up a bowl full of candy and using the following manipulations:

  1. They would ask the children their names and ages to evoke self-awareness, or “individuate” them (e.g., “I am Ramit Sethi” and the accompanying connotations of ‘I am a good person’).
  2. In one condition, a woman told the children to only take one piece of candy.
  3. In another condition, a mirror was placed conspicuously so children could see themselves as they reached into the candy bowl.
  4. In a final condition, they combined the “warning” and “mirror” conditions.

There is a lot more to it, and while the methodology is interesting, I’ll just cut to the results.

Picture 3

What did they find?

Key results

  • BASELINE: With no mirror and no warning to take only one piece of candy from the bowl, 75% of children took more than 1 piece of candy. Ok, makes sense. It’s sitting there in front of you.
  • VERBAL WARNING ONLY: When the experimenters warned children to take only 1 candy, that number dropped to 34.2%. Good job kids, listen to your elders.
  • COMBINED EFFECT: When the researchers (1) warned the children to only take one candy, plus (2) put a mirror in front of them, that number dropped to 11.7%. Astonishing.

Why would a mirror produce such a big change in behavior?

What are some of the other ways you can apply this to yourself?

I’ll be covering this — plus more principles of social psychology — in the I Will Teach You To Be Rich boot camp, launching November 3rd.

Boot Camp

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Get additional bonuses and an early-bird discount by signing up for the free pre-list here.

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  1. Very interesting study. Thanks for sharing.

    Reminds me of similar studies that have been done involving honor codes or self-policed action and the presence of human eyes – either real or just an image.

    This article in the New Scientist talks about a study done in an office coffee room where people were supposed to pay for their drinks on the honor system. Just by posting a picture of eyes near the tip box, people paid 2.76 times more.

  2. According to my college Social Psychology textbook (the only textbook I kept), diminished self-awareness is called deindividuation, and it causes people to behave in a less-restrained manner, to be more likely to act without thinking about their own individual values, and to be more responsive to situational factors. Deindividuation is blamed for incidents when people act irrationally, such as during a riot. It is increased by alcohol consumption, and decreased (meaning self-awareness is increased) by mirrors, cameras, small towns, bright lights, large name tags, uninterrupted quiet, etc..

    To wit, if you’re out at a noisy place with your friends, you’ve had a few drinks, and it’s noisy, you’re likely to get swept up in the moment and forget about your own values and goals.

    So, if you’re trying to save money, maybe put a mirror in your wallet in front of your credit card? 😛 Or, even taping a tiny card that summarizes your monthly budget to the inside of your wallet would help. Or, you could just take a good look in the mirror before you leave the house.

    This makes me think about the design philosophies behind vegas. There’s plenty of lights, but it’s generally pretty dark. I don’t remember whether there are many mirrors, but the scale of the buildings are very large, there’s a general effort to make one feel disoriented, and there’s of course plenty of alcohol. Mix that with the brilliant slogan “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” and you’ve got yourself one powerful, money-sucking, deindividuation machine.

    • Yeah, the researchers actually had a separate experiment on individuation for the kids. But de-individuation has been challenged (some would say discredited) for various reasons, such as the Nurses experiment. So while there is a lot of validity to it, there are also holes in the theory.

      In any case, great thoughts on how to apply this to your own life. That’s exactly why I posted this!

  3. Fascinating stuff Ramit – I think that this effect could be at the root of success for services like Smartypig & Wesabe, which are about involving your own social circle in your finances.

    Money being a taboo topic for many people is certainly to our detriment. You have me thinking of more ways to use this effect – thanks!

  4. @MatthewHall

    “Money being a taboo topic for many people…”

    you must not live in the midwest 🙂

  5. Funny how something so simple can be so profound. I agree, very interesting study…

  6. HAHAHAHA. My neighbours are going to wonder wtf is there a mirror and a bowl of candy outside of my house tomorrow night. I think the mirror ascept on Halloween is actually kind of creepy. Reminds me of The Ring!

  7. I’ve read before about the psychological effect a mirror has on one’s actions. I think when we see a mirror, we suddenly quantify risks of stepping out of bounds because there’s another set of eyeballs on us (or so we think). It’s a good tactic to put to use in many areas, including finances. Now, if we could only get a mirror in the Fed’s room where they’re printing all that darn money.

  8. This is very good to know! I have a problem of procrastinating at work. I know I’m procrastinating, I know I should be working, but it’s more fun to look at lolcats and news. Maybe if I put a mirror in my office, where I can see myself, I will be ashamed to see myself goofing off and proud to see myself working. I will just have a lot of coworkers who think I’m very vain. C’est la vie.

  9. Yes I have always suspected something like this. Even those who consider themselves highly independent and say they don’t care what others think probably still do.

    I wonder why we do care so much what people think and how we can virtuously overcome this. What I mean is, it is considered good to think for yourself and yet it does not seem so prevalent in life.

    The mind boggles!

  10. Hey Ramit,

    When we see ourselves doing something or being some way, we think twice and maybe even try to change.

    If a kid sees how much candy they’re taking, they start feeling bad for appearing to be greedy, and they only take one.

    If someone is fat, when they constantly see their body, they could become less satisfied with their current condition and want to change.

    Perhaps everyone should arrange a Real World-style reality show for themselves and their circle of friends, eh? Massive self-improvement in record time 🙂

    All the best with the upcoming bootcamp,