One of my favourite academic articles is “The Razor Blade In The Apple”. This fascinating piece investigates the idea of Halloween Sadism. Did the authors find extensive evidence of random strangers sadistically harming children? At the risk of spoiling the story; no of course they didn’t. Stories about this arise every year but they almost never survive proper scrutiny, they are just an urban legend. Some horrific episodes have happened but these have generally been within families and not strangers. The stories are terrible but not what parents worry about when they take their kids trick or treating. As the authors say: “… the threat of halloween sadism has been greatly exaggerated. There is simply no basis for Newsweek’s (1975) claim that “several children have died”.” (Best and Horiuchi, 1985, page 490).
That we collectively “overreact” to certain dangers is interesting and I think leads to a broader point. Why panic about some but not other unlikely dangers? Why worry that the old lady down the street wants to murder our children who she has never met, will never see again, and despite the fact that in the first 80 years of her life she hasn’t even posted a nasty comment on Facebook. This seems pure paranoia.
Why are we paranoid? The consequences of being too trusting of other people can be dramatically visible, e.g. watch any Law and Order episode. The consequences of being too untrusting are more common but rarely noticed, e.g. a missed potential friendship. Evolutionary psychologists would say this paranoia arose to avoid the danger strangers posed in the environment humans evolved in. Even if true it doesn’t follow that paranoia works today. The danger level in our environment may well have changed faster than our mental processes.
Remember that the chance of finding a Halloween sadist on your street is not noticeably different to finding the house of the three bears from Goldilocks. If you must check the candy for razor blades fine, inspecting Halloween candy doesn’t do any harm, but as far as dangers go you should worry more about diabetes.
Read: Joel Best and Gerald T. Horiuchi (1985) The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends. Social Problems 32 (5) pages 488-499