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Why We’re Afraid of Poisoned Halloween Candy

An interview with Critica CEO Sara Gorman about why this urban legend persists
November 9, 2017 | Comments

What do irrational purchasing of guns after a mass shooting and fears of poisoned Halloween candy have in common? This was a question posed to Critica CEO and Co-Founder Sara Gorman recently by a journalist who was writing an article about persistent fears of poisoned Halloween candy despite no evidence of this ever happening. Does this have something to do with skewed risk perception, he asked, and why does that skewed risk perception persist?

This was an unusual, but very interesting, question. It does seem that similar phenomena are at play here as in the gun situation in that it involves misperception of risk for many of the same reasons. For example, parents may focus on the risk of poisoned candy because images or stories like this are so outrageous and rare that they tend to be covered in the media and the risk is therefore “available” (e.g. availability bias).

But in the case of the poisoned Halloween candy there are some unique factors to take into account as well. People’s risk perception about their children can be wrong in very specific ways because protecting their children is such a high stakes situation and is a very emotional task. Whenever we see people focusing too much on a small risk and not enough on a larger risk, we have to think about what the psychological motivation behind that might be. In this case, since parenting involves so much anxiety and uncertainty and the stakes are so high, there is a desire to maintain an illusion of control. Parents may be inclined to view poisoned Halloween candy as a big risk in part because they feel like it is something they can actually control to some extent or take action against. They can make sure all the candy their children eat is sealed properly and I think some parents may even do more than that like X-ray the candy. In reality, bigger threats to children’s health and safety come from dangers that feel more difficult to control, like car accidents and unhealthy eating habits.

In addition, parents always want to feel like they did everything they possibly could to protect their children, so if they truly consider that something they are doing or that’s in their home may threaten their child’s safety, that is very difficult to face. So in making these kinds of “external” risks like poisoned candy seem like a bigger deal, they are at the same time able to minimize or not have to think about risks that either feel harder to control or that could be considered their own fault, like having hazards in the home.

There are parallels to the gun situation here: people don’t want to think about someone in their family committing suicide or becoming so enraged that they use the gun in a domestic dispute, even though statistically these are much greater risks than what they tend to think about when purchasing a gun, which are usually “external” threats like armed intruders. In some ways, it’s more “comfortable” to think about the “external” risk and by focusing on those we in turn are able to think less about the more “uncomfortable” (but in reality much bigger) “internal” risks like a suicide or accident within the family occurring in the home.

In short, these fears are irrational but there are many “rational” reasons why someone might harbor them. See the full interview here.

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