Human Behavior Experiments Stealing and Children

About a human behavior experiment to determine what effect different variables play on children's decisions to steal.

HUMAN BEHAVIOR EXPERIMENTS

TREAT AND A TRICK

Title of Experiment: Effects of Deindividuation Variables on Stealing among Halloween Trick-or-Treaters

Conducted by: Edward Diener, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Arthur L. Beaman, University of Montana; Scott C. Fraser, University of Southern California; and Roger T. Kelem, Portland, Ore. The experiment was conducted in Seattle, Wash., in 1974.

Reported in: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 2 (1976), 178-183

Object: To assess the effects of several variables on stealing by children, including anonymity versus nonanonymity in both individual and group activities, and assigning to one child the accountability for the actions of the others.

The Experiment: The subjects were some 1,300 children who arrived at 27 homes on Halloween to trick-or-treat. The entry hall in each of the homes was arranged with a low table containing a large bowl of individually wrapped candy bars at one end and a bowl filled with nickels and pennies at the other end. Overlooking the table was a backdrop with a peephole, behind which was camouflaged an observer.

A female experimenter greeted the children at the door, smiling and remarking on their costumes. She then told each child or group of children, "You [or each of you] may take one of the candies. I have to go back to my work in another room." The instructions were repeated if a child asked about the money or had any questions about what he was supposed to do. She then left the room, and the observer noted for each child how much candy he took and whether he took any money from the other bowl.

In some of the cases, the neighborhood children, all unknown to the experimenter, were asked their names and addresses (nonanonymous condition). In these instances, the experimenter repeated the information to be sure that the children knew that she remembered it. In other cases, none of the children were asked their names, and thus all remained anonymous. In still other cases, the responsibility of the members of the group of children was altered by making only one child responsible for the actions of the others (altered responsibility). This was done by selecting the smallest child in the group and asking his or her name and address. It was felt that if the smallest child were chosen, he or she could be made the scapegoat by the others, and also he or she would have the least power to influence the actions of the others. To this child was given the responsibility of seeing that each of the others took only one candy.

Conclusions: Of the more than 1,300 children unwittingly taking part in this experiment, 416 of them transgressed. In 65% of these cases, extra candy was taken; in 14% the child took only money; and in 21% of the cases, the child took both extra candy and money.

When the experimenter knew the identities of all of the children in a group, stealing of candy and/or money occurred in over 20% of the cases, but when trick-or-treaters arrived alone and were identified by name, stealing occurred in only 7.5% of the cases. When children arrived alone and remained anonymous, transgressions occurred in 21% of the cases, but when they arrived in groups and remained anonymous, stealing occurred in over 57% of the cases. Finally, in the groups where all children remained anonymous except for the smallest child, who was given responsibility for the actions of the others, stealing occurred in 80% of the cases.

The results confirmed several hypotheses: first, that under conditions of anonymity, more antisocial behavior was likely to occur, because the fear of being caught was reduced; second, that because of the feeling that there is safety in numbers, children are more likely to commit transgressions in groups than if they are alone; and, finally, that by making the child least likely to influence others supposedly responsible for their actions, stealing would increase, because the others would feel that they themselves were not responsible.

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