Halloween and Child Danger — From Legend to Law

October 31, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

On Halloween of 2006, when this blog was only a few weeks old, I did a post (here) that mentioned Joel Best’s famous 1985 Social Problems article debunking “Halloween sadism.” All those stories about evil adults putting needles in apples or LSD on candy, they were urban legends — stories that many people have heard about, but when you try to track down specific instances, they vanish like a ghost. Best updated his research in 2012 and still could not find case where a child had suffered serious injury let alone the deaths claimed in the legend. There a few stories, usually in local online news sources, of sharp objects found in candy, but no reports of injury.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the post was really about cognitive biases. It takes more than lack of evidence to drive a stake through the heart of a good legend. It’s not just that people don’t stop believing. They can expand and transform it, and then give it a much more solid form.  Halloween sadism has shifted shape and become Halloween pedophilia.  And while Halloween sadism was spread more or less randomly by word-of-mouth, Halloween pedophilia is now written into the law. Starting in the early 2000s, many states have passed laws restricting sex offenders on Halloween. In many places they are not allowed to give out candy. In some, they are not allowed to decorate their homes or have the lights on. Police and parole officers may intensify their surveillance, and some jurisdictions just round up all known sex offenders and keep them in a single location like city hall till trick-or-treat is over.*

These extraordinary measures are based on the assumption that, as Fox News puts it, “pedophiles will be out in full force” on Halloween.

The evidence shows no such Halloween effect. Researchers looked at rates of sex crimes against children over the course of eight years and found no difference between Halloween and any other day. Nor were rates any lower after the new polices were put in place than they had been before. (The article is a behind a paywall here.)

You don’t have to be much of a child safety expert to guess which people do actually present a greatly increased risk to children on Halloween. Motorists.

The numbers are small, thankfully, but the Halloween effect is unmistakable.

* In the last few years, we’ve had a more serious examples of new laws based on myth as myths of voter fraud and stolen elections became the basis for changes in election laws. The big difference is that the people propagating the election myths were doing so in order to further their own interests. The diffusion of Halloween myths was more “endogenous.” For more on endogenous and exogenous factors, see this earlier post on the rise and fall in the popularity of baby names and movies.

On Becoming an Entrepreneurship Industry User

October 18, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sixteen years ago, I went to hear what I guess you’d call a motivational speaker. He was trying to motivate the thousand or so people in the auditorium buy his course on getting rich, and to do that he had to first make us feel that we could be wildly successful if only we changed the way we thought about money. And he did. He was really good. Motivational, even inspirational. We really did feel as though some gigantic prize were within our grasp.

The way to unlimited wealth, he said, is of course, to have your own business. If you work for someone else, whatever your monthly salary or (God forbid) hourly wage, your income is limited; there are only twelve months or twenty-four hours.

I remembered that talk as I was listening to the latest episode of the Sociology Annex podcast (here). Joe Cohen’s guest was Rasums Koss Hartman, and I realized that my motivational speaker was part of what Hartman calls  calls the Entreprenership Industry. Hartman teaches at a business school (Copenhagen — all his degrees are from there too), but his take on the Entrepreneurship industry and the entrepreneurs took me back to my intro sociology course six decades ago where we read Outsiders and Theory of the Leisure Class.  

Most people who try to become entrepreneurs run into a variety of setbacks — they have problems getting their business to work properly, they get rejected by potential investors, they lose money, they go into debt, and all these can compromise their relationships and mental health.

But the Entrepreneurial Industry is there to persuade them that all these experiences are normal and possibly necessary steps to eventual success. Becoming an entrepreneur in the 2000s is much like what Becker described in “On Becoming a Marijuana User” for jazz musicians in the 1940s. The crucial challenge is to learn to define as pleasurable and good what others might see as unpleasant. Becker’s musicians had their own hip culture (it was  the 1940s, so probably their “hep” culture). Hopeful start-ups have the Entrepreneurial Industry. In fact, Hartman calls the entrepreneur’s transformational learning “the Beckerian Distortion.”   

There are differences of course. Pot was legally and socially condemned; entrepreneurship is highly praised. The hepcats didn’t charge for their help, and nobody went broke. Nor did they strive to smoke  unlimited quantities of pot or try to figure out how to be a mega-hophead. Being a pot user was not the core of their identity.

But in the US, we lionize the successful start-up billionaire, so being an entrepreneur is a valid and valued identity. As Hartman says, “If you’re a young person and you’re underemployed, if you’re a college-educated barista, it’s socially preferable to be the ‘founder and CEO’ of a company even though it might not succeed.” Spending your money on the goods and services the Entrepreneurial Industry sells is a kind of conspicuous consumption, signaling to others that even if you are not the next Steve Jobs, at least you are doing something everyone admires. And so we have what Hartman calls “The Rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur.”

In both these papers, Hartman begins with what my motivational speaker omitted: that the graph of entrepreneurial success is a highly skewed power curve. The typical venture ends up as a “Muppet” (I’m not sure why he borrows that term): “An economically marginal, under-sized and poorly performing enterprise.” Maybe that’s still better than being a barista.

Embarrassment — a Property of the Situation, Not the Person

October 6, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

When the American Sociological Association gave an award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues to This American Life in 2013, one of the sociologists who spoke about the show (David Newman IIRC), praised its highlighting of social context.

No, no, said Ira Glass when it was his turn. The name of the award gets it all wrong. “What we want are stories, stories with good individual characters. If we don’t have a good character, we can’t do a good radio piece” (This quote isn’t exact— I’m trying to remember something that happened eight years ago — but it conveys the idea.)

Ira was being too modest. Usually, those This American Life stories cannot help but reflect the social forces shaping what the characters do, which is why the ASA was honoring the show. It just provides such good classroom material for professors to work from.

But sometimes the focus on the individual obscures subtle social forces and keeps us from thinking about the sociological implications of the story. The most recent episode, was about embarrassment. But it completely missed Goffman’s insight that while it is the individual who feels embarrassed, embarrassment is really a property of the social situation. Goffman’s focus, as he says in the introduction to Interaction Ritual, is “Not men and their moments, but moments and their men.” [He means “men and women,” but he wrote this a half-century ago.]     
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For this episode, “My Bad” (here), This American Life asked listeners to contribute their own stories of embarrassment. They got some doozies. The final segment (title: “Putting the Bare Ass in Embarrassment”) is from a woman, Cariad Harmon, who was sleeping at her boyfriend’s apartment for the first time. Sleeping is the key word.  

Here is the transcript:

I just remember being really, really tired and really needing to go to the bathroom. And that was kind of my last thought as I was falling to sleep was, ugh, I really need to pee, but I can't be bothered to get up and find the bathroom. And then I had this dream that I really needed to go to the bathroom. And I was looking for one and I couldn't find one anywhere. And I was pushing this big metal door, in my search for the bathroom. And it was locked. And I couldn't get through, and I was really, really frustrated.

And then, I woke up. And I was naked, standing in a stairwell, pushing against a big door that went from the stairwell into the rest of the apartment building.

She had sleepwalked. It was early in the morning. She opened the stairwell door and looked down hallway but could not remember which of the apartments was her boyfriends’s. It’s a long story and includes her peeing in the stairwell and winding up nude in an apartment full of strangers.

At the end of the episode, the host Elna Baker says.

So, most of the embarrassing stories I've heard and collected for this week's show, the person does something that results in their embarrassment... So, I get why they feel embarrassed. But you didn't do anything. You didn't overstep. You didn't make a mistake, but you still feel embarrassed.

Cariad agrees, sort of. “Yeah. I suppose if you take blame off the table, it takes maybe a certain flavor of that embarrassment out. But it doesn't take the embarrassment away.”

Goffman couldn’t have put it better. Embarrassment is not a matter of the individual’s intent or personal characteristics or other bases of blame.. It’s about the norms and roles that are part of the social situation. (Of course Cariad did something. She walked around naked in an aparment building. She peed on the stairs. When Elna Baker says, “You didn’t do anything,” I think she means, “You didn’t do anything consciously or intentionally; there was no way you could have avoided it.”)

I used to ask students to write, anonymously of course, their own incidents of embarrassment. Some of them had this same quality where the person was blameless but still embarrassed. One girl was forced to play in the softball game at the company picnic despite her protestations. Sure enough, the first time a ball was hit in her directions, it went right through her legs, and she felt keen embarrassment. (Feeling irked at her co-workers came later.) 

Another girl was making out with her boyfriend in his parked car. Most of their clothing was strewn on the seat and floor. Still, nothing blameworthy there, or embarrassing. But then a cop came and shone his flashlight in on them. And the cop was her father. She had still done nothing blameworthy, nobody had. But needless to say, all three were embarrassed. In other cases, the person is embarrassed not by their own gaffe but by what someone with them has done. Often that other person is a child too young to know the situational norms.

The more general point is that embarrassment shows the advantage of thinking first about the situation and what it requires of the people in it