Tricked for Treats

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

When I moved to America for college, I expected inflatable skeletons, eerie lights, a polyphony of carved pumpkins, and children running from house to house begging for candy. Never did my mind’s eye turn the other way, to look at those who offered, rather than received, the candy. Halloween in New Haven, however, is a game for kids and adults alike; here, those who offer candy themselves may be getting something out of it.

Walking around the East Rock neighborhood a full two weeks before Halloween night already leaves one with a sense of the festivities that are to come. While the house decorations fell short of my idealized expectations (fake spiderwebs here and there and carved pumpkins on a few porches), the street had a crisp air of “Halloweeness.” I noticed an almost perfect absence of sound apart from the rustling of foliage, porch swings faintly rocking back and forth in the fall breeze, orange and red leaves dotting streets and sidewalks. These streets don’t need gaudy decor; their unsettling presence is enough to embody the Halloween spirit. I left the neighborhood that Saturday morning with mental images of kids filling up the road, running from house to house.

To this day, Natalie Semmel (DC ‘25) and Rory Latham (MC ‘25), Yale undergraduates who grew up in East Rock, have fond memories of their trick-or-treating days not unlike those I imagined while walking through the neighborhood.

Natalie, who moved to East Rock when she was six years old, remembered the striking walkability of the neighborhood in comparison to the Philadelphia suburb where she previously lived. “Halloween is a very big deal in East Rock… the neighborhood is very friendly to pedestrians,” she said. “People from all around the area would come to participate.” Latham, who also spent most of his childhood in the area, echoed the sentiment, asserting that he would run into everyone he knew on Halloween night.

However, the two have different memories of how exactly Halloween looked in the neighborhood. Semmel remembers trick-or-treating in East Rock as a game of ‘quantity over quality’—the focus was not on extravagant decorations, but candy collection. She competed with her twin sister to knock on the most doors possible, focusing on the two-family houses to get double the candy. Latham, on the other hand, recalled elaborate, decked-out porches, maze-like yards to navigate, and giant spiderwebs made out of rope.

Decorated or not, the East Rock neighborhood seemed to me a paradise for trick-or-treaters — but this idealization was too good to be true. Halloween presented underlying corruption.

It all started when well-intentioned children started heading towards Dean Karlan’s house back in 2008. Karlan is a behavioral economist who currently teaches at Northwestern University. But before heading West in 2017, he lived in that very same East Rock neighborhood, and his house was the source of viral debates, conversations and articles. Every year, it was characterized by the long line of children waiting for candy, organizing themselves into an orderly queue leading up to the front porch. Why? Because Karlan and his team of researchers used excess amounts of Halloween candy to gain insight into childrens’ values and psychology. Think of the renowned marshmallow experiment. A child is left alone in a room facing a marshmallow and faced with a mind-boggling choice: eat it on the spot or wait fifteen minutes and get a second one. Karlan takes on the test Halloween-style, outside of the laboratory setting. Explaining the inspiration behind the project, he told me via email, “I learned from the prior owners that our block gets 800-1000 kids per year… When else do you get [this many] kids coming to your porch?”

Semmel has vivid memories of the experiments: every year, graduate students would set up on the Karlans’ porch, notepad in hand, shepherding the masses that would gather in front of the house. After a ten-minute wait, trick-or-treaters would eventually be awarded candy. “I never participated,” Semmel said. “I wanted to get as much candy as possible and waiting ten long minutes would get me behind on my trick-or-treating schedule.” But her best friend lived in the house right next door, so she gained some insider knowledge on the experiments conducted. They ranged in discipline from psychology to behavioral economics and even into politics; in 2008, for example, Karlan tested whether children from liberal families would stand next to a John McCain cutout instead of an Obama one in order to win extra candy.

Semmel recalled one test in particular which distressed her brother to no end. He was presented with one small piece of candy and one bigger one. The person offering the candy then told him that some people are starving in the world, and that, if he took the small candy, the bigger one would be offered to a person in need. They then noted the results.

Semmel disagreed with this method: “I don’t think this was okay. We weren’t even sure the candy was then given away to someone who needed it.” Her brother, who was just under six at the time, got very emotional when faced with this harrowing choice.

As of today, Dean Karlan has moved and Livingston Street is back to normal… for now. If new experiments arise in the near future, Semmel said, she wouldn’t be surprised. Is this the “Yale effect”? Is academic influence truly dominant enough in the Elm City to escape the bounds of the university and reach the streets of East Rock? It seems almost absurd that professors would intervene in an event as child-focused as Halloween. And the intended outcome of these experiments remains unclear: to tell a naϊve trick-or-treater that people are starving and that they are indirectly stealing from those in need is dubious, to say the least. Can we truly test altruism in this way? 

Karlan defended his objective, writing, “ultimately of course all research is a mosaic, because no one study is perfect… This was a fun learning exercise, not one to take too seriously, but we did learn some things.” 

Karlan turned his findings into an academic paper published in 2015 titled “Candy Elasticity: Halloween Experiments on Public Political Statements.” Two quotes open the article: French historian Francois Guisot’s musing on the tendency towards conservatism with age, and “I want candy,” attributed to “Every kid, ever.” “We exploit the second premise to test the first premise,” writes Karlan in his introduction. 

Fortunately, let us remind ourselves that these tests did not “exploit” everybody’s Halloween spirit: Latham only remembers Karlan’s house as “the one with people holding the notepads” and laughs at the memory. “My friends and I would do everything to avoid it”.

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