November 1st, 2011 | WEEKEND

Of Candy, Children, Barack Obama

A young girl's choice.
A young girl's choice. Photo by Akbar Ahmed.

An orange bowl of candy was placed on the doorstep. A volunteer patiently waited to usher children around. Tables were strategically placed, a test was diligently prepared. And the President watched on from stage left.

A crew of Yale students, both undergraduates and grads, conducted an experiment on trick-or-treaters in East Rock earlier this evening. Based in the home of economics professor Dean Karlan, the students were continuing the ancient tradition of using candy, sugar-hungry children and controlled set-ups to draw conclusions about human behavior when it comes to resource allocation.

This year, Karlan and his team wanted to examine how strong the so-called ‘follow the leader’ effect actually is, particularly in terms of giving to charities, Adele Rossouw ’13 said. This means, she went on, whether people choose to donate more to established, wealthy charitable set-ups due to a belief that they must be more efficient than those with less cash.

We know your inner 7-year old is still wondering what that means in terms of Tootsie Rolls. So we’ll explain.

Each kid was handed 5 Tootsie Rolls and then randomly led to one of two tables set up on Karlan’s porch. The child was then presented with either a relatively full bowl of Tootsie Rolls or a relatively empty one (again, a random occurrence) and told that he or she could choose to give any amount of their Rolls, or none, to help children without candy.

In a twist equal parts interesting and politically charged, the researchers placed a large cut-out figure of President Obama behind one of the tables. Rossouw explained that the Obama variable was meant to explore whether Obama’s perceived likability, or a sense of increased responsibility when being watched by the Commander-in-Chief, would influence the childrens’ decisions.

For all the researchers’ careful planning, the Tootsie-Obama-kindness nexus had its kinks. You had your terrified kids who just dropped it all and ran, the Harry Potter gowns their parents lovingly and ever so inaccurately designed streaming out behind them. Some children wanted more, actually reaching into the bowl. One delightful child actually spoke his first words at the event — “twick or tweat,” cried the youngin as he grabbed at fallen pieces of candy. It was intense, it was life-affirming; it was the most generous of times, it was the Tootsiest of times.