Beneath the Mask

We wear a variety of masks – personas adjusted for the different roles and labels we bring to particular settings. These masks are not so different from the ones my girls will put on tonight to walk through our neighborhood, filling their pumpkins to the brim with candy. 

Masks are an opportunity for us to experiment with our individuality. Yet, even at times when we are almost unrecognizable to ourselves and others, our capacity for self-awareness allows us to still see ourselves clearly. But only if we let it. 

In one of my very favorite social psychology experiments, researchers examined how much candy trick-or-treating children would take when they were reminded who they really were under their goblin and dragon costumes. At various houses throughout Seattle, bowls of delicious candy were placed by the doors. Children trick-or-treating (without their parents) would ring doorbells of homes selected to be part of the experiment. A woman would warmly greet them, tell them to take one piece of candy and close the door, saying she had to get back to something she was doing. The researchers altered two main variables: Sometimes the woman would ask for the children’s names before closing the door. And sometimes, a mirror was behind the bowl of candy.

The trick-or-treaters were monitored to see who took one piece and who grabbed a handful. 

The findings were significant. Overall, children were pretty likely to break the rule and take a big scoop of candy when they hadn’t mentioned their names and no mirror was present. A few children took the entire bowl and emptied it into their baskets. One even took the bowl.

Yet, something interesting happened when the woman asked the children’s names. Then, an overwhelming majority took only one piece. And when a mirror was present, very few children took more than one piece. So what happened? The children became self-aware. 

Saying our name reminds us of who is behind the mask. Seeing a glimpse of our reflection in a mirror reminds us of who we really are. Self-awareness – in this case, children literally looking at themselves in a mirror as their hands reached out for the candy – made it less likely that they would act in a way that didn’t fit their beliefs and values. 

It’s powerful to see ourselves clearly. We might not always like who we see in the mirror, but there is comfort in knowing who we are beneath the mask.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.