Diversify Your Trick-or-Treating Candy Haul, Productivity Researchers Say

Special Halloween Post

One of the reasons I started Productivity Report was to look at the science behind productivity and figure out what we should do to change our behavior based on the findings to become more productive. And since it’s nearly Halloween, I wanted to share this gem of a quote I came across recently:

“Read and Loewenstein [1995] conducted an experimental study of variety-seeking among trick-or-treaters on Halloween. Children who were told to take any two pieces of candy at a single house always chose two different candies. Those who chose one candy at each of two adjacent houses (from the same set of options) typically chose the same candy at each house. Normatively, the children should diversify the portfolio of candy in their bag, but in fact they only diversify the candy from a single house.” (Camerer, 1997)

Did you catch that last part? The trick-or-treaters “normatively, should diversify the portfolio of candy in their bag.”

My eyes lit up at the “should.”

When I read academic work, I rarely come across clear recommendations of what anyone should do. When I do see them, they are usually pretty hesitant. This one is bold.

I get that “normatively” means “in an subjectively economic world.” But in terms of kids amassing candy on Halloween, why should they diversify?

In the world of children, candy is currency.

A Trick-or-Treating Candy Strategy

The way I see it, children should pick their number-one choice in candy every time, including twice from the same house. Diversifying just gets them less of what they really want. 

When children ring a doorbell and are greeted by an adult stranger, while standing on the person’s porch wearing a paper-thin Batman cape, I think they get suckered into choosing two different candies. One of the reasons is they’re trying to be polite. “I shouldn’t wipe these people out of Snickers.” They might also have been taught that having options by diversifying their candy haul is better than having too much of a good thing.

In this case, why are options preferable? If you like two candies equally, then perhaps options are preferable. If you sometimes get tired of your favorite candy, then maybe you want to have options. But if you have a true favorite candy, and you never get sick of it, why wouldn’t you want to have other, lesser candies in your stock? Why wouldn’t you want to have as much of your favorite candy as you can get?

I brought this up with my partner by shouting, “I don’t understand economists! Wouldn’t it be best if the children got more of what they actually wanted?” 

I made him read the excerpt cited above, and he disagreed with me and sided with the authors. Kids should diversify their candy haul. Maddening!

I said, “When I was a kid, I tried to get all the Snickers bars. After trick-or-treating, back at home, the first thing my brother and sister and I would do is start trading.”

He stared at me. I was waiting for him to say that he also participated in the great annual Halloween candy swap as well, but he said nothing. I continued.

“I would immediately try to get rid of the Smarties and the lollipops that I got but didn’t want, while maximizing my Snickers and Baby Ruths.”

“Ah ha!” he said. “So you did have a first and second choice!”

“Oh no no,” I said. “Snickers and Baby Ruth are basically the same candy bar!” Amateur. “Anyway, I made my pile of Snickers bars and Baby Ruths, and those were non-tradable.”

At this stage of the trick-or-treating game, the collective haul is fixed. No new candies enter the market. So my strategy was to figure out what I could trade in order to get all the Snickers and Babie Ruths. Milky Ways were also highly valued, as I explained:

“Then I’d separate all the Milky Ways into a pile, because they are basically Snickers bars without peanuts, so they’d be the last ones to go up on the auction block.”

More staring.

“What?” I asked in defense.

“I’m not at all surprised that you sorted and organized your candy on Halloween.”

“You didn’t?”

“No.”

“Well, I’m a woman who knows what she wants.”

“And you wanted all the Snickers?”

“Yes.”

Part of my trading strategy was to bundle. I might offer two Tootsie Rolls and a lollipop for a Snickers, or a Butterfinger plus a York Peppermint Pattie in exchange for a larger size Milky Way. But the goal was always to get as much of the thing that I wanted as possible, not to diversify.

Did you diversify your candy haul as a child? Have you noticed whether your children do it? What other strategies did you have while trick or treating, and do you use any of them to this day in other ways? I’d love to hear stories from parents this year as they observe the behaviors of their children on Halloween. Let me know what you see!

References

Camerer, C.F., Babcock, L., Loewenstein, G., & Thaler, R. H. (1997). Labor Supply of New York City Cab Drivers: One Day at a Time, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(2), 407–441.

Read, D. and Loewenstein, G. (1995). The Diversification Bias: Explaining the Difference between Prospective and Real-Time Taste for Variety, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, I, 34–49.

Photo by george ruiz, CC.

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