In 2004, the researchers Jacqueline Woolley, Elizabeth Boerger, and Arthur Markman conducted a study at the University of Texas at Austin in which they told young children (ages 3 to 5) at a childcare center about the "Candy Witch." This was the script they used:
'Let me tell you about the Candy Witch. I have never seen the Candy Witch so I don't have a real picture of her. But somebody made a doll that looks like her, and I have a picture of that. Here it is. This is what she looks like. (Speaker shows picture of a Candy Witch doll and passes the picture around.) She's a really nice witch. And do you know what she loves best of all? Candy! She eats candy for breakfast, and candy for lunch, and candy for dinner. She has to brush her teeth a lot!
Do you know where she gets all that candy? Well, I'll tell you. Every Halloween night, after the kids are all asleep she leaves her house and flies around. And she carries with her a big bag of toys – brand-new toys. And do you know what she does with those toys? I'll tell you. Some children don't want all that candy they collected. They'd rather have a toy instead. So, their mom and dad call the Candy Witch on the phone and tell her to come. Then they leave their candy for the Candy Witch to take, and she gives them a new toy in its place. This way, she gets all the candy she wants, and the kids get new toys!
(She always leaves a few pieces of candy though; she doesn't take it all.).
Now, some kids don't want the Candy Witch to take their candy and leave a brand-new toy. So she won't come to their house. But other kids really do want the Candy Witch to come to their house and leave a toy for them. She only goes to the houses of kids who want her to come.'
In the write-up of the study
[PDF], published in the journal Developmental Science
, the researchers said their goal was to find out how easily the children could be made to believe in a "novel fantastical being." Would they totally accept the Candy Witch, because an adult had told them about her? Or would they, at even such a young age, be skeptical? They found that the majority of the kids did express belief in the Candy Witch after Halloween. However, "not all children accepted the Candy Witch, and that those who did exhibited a range of belief levels."
Since 2004, the experiment has become somewhat famous, and it's been taken to mean that children aren't quite as credulous as once thought. They can be fooled pretty easily, but they're not entirely passive sponges soaking up whatever they're told.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the experiment left one question unanswered: How many kids believed that line about the Candy Witch being "a really nice witch"? She sounds a little malevolent to me, swooping into people's houses and stealing their candy. Are we seriously supposed to accept that she isn't up to something? Perhaps that was the real test of credulity, and all the kids flunked it!
In fact, maybe these "researchers" were part of a covert PR team hired by the Candy Witch to convince everyone that she's "really nice." And then, when we all have our guard down — that's when she'll strike!
So this Halloween, watch out for the Candy Witch!