Highlighting Human Behavior, on Halloween

October 3, 2017

Bonnie Klentz - Professor of Psychology

Ever feel like you’re being watched on Halloween night? If you find yourself part of one of Professor Bonnie Klentz’s Halloween research studies, chances are good that you are indeed being watched. A member of Stonehill’s psychology faculty and a social psychologist by specialty, Klentz — like other social scientists at institutions around the country — has used Halloween night research to examine decision-making or psychological principles such as self-awareness. “It’s a simple but effective way to test theories with children in the field versus adults in the lab,” Klentz explains. “Kids who come to a house as trick-or-treaters become anonymous research participants.” 

In one such study, Klentz and collaborators, with the help of student research assistants, set up mirrors behind the requisite Halloween candy bowls at 30 houses, advising trick-or-treating children they could help themselves to one treat. The researchers were positioned incognito behind sheets decorated with Halloween-appropriate drawings with viewing holes so they could observe the children’s actions.

What they found was consistent with self-awareness theory: When the mirror was present, allowing the children to see themselves as others might see them, they more frequently adhered to the one-piece rule, especially those children age 9 and older. The Halloween set-up allowed the researchers to collect data on 300 children over a three-hour period. A few years later, the study caught the attention of Los Angeles Times and Time magazine reporters writing stories highlighting such Halloween studies. Following interviews, Klentz and her research were featured in both articles.

The publicity, Klentz says, supports Stonehill’s position as a formidable research center — the Time article also quotes faculty from Duke and Yale universities — while educating the public on insightful human behavior. “Psychologists do a tremendous amount of research and publish it in psychology journals, where average people would never see the findings,” she notes. “There’s been a push in our profession to communicate our findings more broadly to help positively influence healthier behaviors and lifestyles.”

Though Klentz has also participated in radio interviews, some covering her research on shoplifting reporting, she receives more media calls than she responds to. She says she has learned to shy away from those queries in which journalists seek general psychology commentary, which is outside her particular expertise. “I need to be comfortable using specific evidence or research in order to back up my comments,” Klentz explains. Her forthcoming research highlighting the “CSI effect” — concerns that jurors expect to see forensics to prove a defendant guilty, based on the popular television show — may prove to be another area of broader interest for journalists.

Klentz adds that those articles and textbooks in which she and her research have been featured have also proven to be useful teaching tools that help catalyze student interest in social psychology.

“I talk about my research in class — and I mention there are details about it in articles and textbooks — because we want our students to be aware of their own opportunities to work with faculty on studies,” she says. “It’s one way to recruit students into my lab and give them research experience they can then take ‘out there’ through articles and conferences.”