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Candy For Your Vote, Kid? A Test Of Political Bribery


Halloween is coming up, an excellent opportunity to dress up in costumes, collect candy, and run political experiments. Let's talk about that last thing with Shankar Vedantam. He's NPR's social science correspondent. Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: Political experiments on Halloween.

VEDANTAM: That's right. A couple of social scientists decided a few years ago that Halloween was the perfect opportunity to run a field experiment into political loyalties. Dean Karlan at Yale University and a colleague, Julian Jamison, set up shop at a house in New Haven, C.T. The researchers wanted to find out how candy might sway the political choices of children. So they set up two tables at house in both 2008 and 2012 right before the presidential elections. One table was the Obama table. The other table was the Republican table. There were life-size cutouts of Obama at one table and cutouts of Sen. John McCain in 2008 and Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012...


VEDANTAM: ...At the other table. Trick-or-treaters were told they could collect candy at either table. Now, New Haven is very liberal, so the researchers assumed that most children would take the lead of their parents and prefer to get their candy from the Obama table rather than the Republican table. So in order to test how stable or sticky these loyalties were, they offered bribes to the children. They told the trick-or-treaters that they could get double the candy if they chose to get it from the Republican table.

INSKEEP: Double the candy, assuming the kids were Democratic leaning, so did the kids take the bribe?

VEDANTAM: Children 8 and under tended to be unimpressed by the bribes, and most stuck to getting their candy from the Obama table. Children 9 and over were very different. Compared to those who didn't get an incentive, kids who were bribed were two to three times more likely to get their candy from the Republican table.

INSKEEP: Wow, I would've made a wild guess that it was the opposite, that the older kids might be a little more politically conscious, a little bit less eager to give up their political allegiance. But you're saying it was the young kids who were loyal.

VEDANTAM: So there's another explanation. One is that the younger kids might've had their parents with them, and so they knew their parents were watching them...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: ...And so they were less likely to do something that upset their parents. The older kids on the other hand may have just said, look, this is a game that doesn't really have any consequences, and they followed the first maxim of Halloween, which is thou shalt maximize thy hall of candy.

INSKEEP: OK, so what are the implications for a presidential candidate who might have $10 or $20 or $30 or $50 million to spend on Halloween candy, Shankar?

VEDANTAM: All I can say, Steve, is that the stock price of the companies that sell candy corn is going to go through the roof.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK, Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam who regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And he also explores the upside of fear, another Halloween-ish (ph) idea on his new podcast, Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
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