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Don’t Panic! Stop Worrying and Enjoy Halloween

Don’t Panic! Stop Worrying and Enjoy Halloween
Stop Worrying and Enjoy Halloween

    With Halloween now two weeks away, it’s time to start thinking about Halloween safety. OK, that’s an understatement: if the local news programs are to be believed it’ time to start panicking. Poisoned Pixie Stix, needles-stuck Snickers, and razor-wielding Raisinets lurk behind every Jack-o-lantern-guarded door. Evil ne’er-do-wells lurk ready to pluck your children off the streets and do unspeakable things to them. The dead walk the earth and seek to steal the the souls of the unwary.

    I mock, but only because these myths of Halloween are so eminently mockable. As it happens, Halloween has generated a host of safety myths, turning a once wholesome celebration of zombies, vampires, and other dead, undead, and half-dead things into something rather more sinister. Let’s examine some of these myths:

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    • The candy is poisoned: Every year, we are bombarded with warnings to search our children’s candy carefully for puncture holes, opened wrappers, and so on. Homemade treats — popcorn balls, candy apples, and the like — have completely disappeared from the Halloween repertoire for fear of poisoning. And yet there has never been an instance of a child being poisoned by Halloween candy given her or him by a stranger. Never. The only incident in which Halloween candy has been used to poison someone was a little boy in 1974 who ate Pixie Stix laced with cyanide (rat poison, essentially) by his father, ostensibly to collect on the child’s life insurance policy.
    • There’s needles/razors in the candy: Unlike the fear of poisoning, this one has actually happened, though nobody’s ever been badly hurt. Almost all reported cases of needles or razor bladed being concealed in Halloween candy or other treats have been hoaxes, and the 10 or so that have been confirmed resulted in no injury. All but one of those have been pranks carried out by older siblings or friends. The one exception occurred in 2000 when a man stuck needles into Snickers bars and handed them out; nobody was injured. As it happens, needles and razor blades are easily discovered and not all that dangerous (and you can’t get HIV from them except under conditions that Halloween trick-or-treating simply can’t produce).
    • There’s child molesters roaming free in my neighborhood! You might have looked at one of the scare-sites (appropriate for Halloween, I suppose) that show you how many registered sex offenders live within spitting distance of your house, maybe even mapped their addresses. What you might not have known is how someone gets to be on the sex offenders registry. Many are folks who slept with their 15-year old girlfriends or boyfriends when they were 16 — or even when they were 14 (some states prosecute underage sex regardless of the age of the participants). Most, though, are in fact guilty of molesting children — almost always their own (or closely related). There are very, very few cases (less than 5%) of children being accosted by strangers — the number of cases over the last decade is in the hundreds, out of many thousands of child abuse cases.
    • The dead walk the earth: This one’s true. Give them candy. And pray…

    The reality is that your children are fairly safe from victimization by your neighbors. Statistically speaking, you and your family are the greatest threat your children face — far, far more dangerous than any stranger. While it makes good sense to teach your children to be aware of themselves and their surroundings in the company of strangers, the feverish panic that breaks out every year in the weeks before Halloween is way out of proportion to the actual threat posed to your children.

    So where does the panic come from? At least part of it has to be pinned on local news organizations and their addiction to the scare story as a way to drive ratings. “Poisoned candy rampant in the Southland! Are your children at risk??????” I can only assume that people respond to this kind of thing, since news broadcasters keep doing it, risking their credibility and seriousness in the process.

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    But the more important story lies in the anxieties we as a society have fostered over the last several decades. As we’ve become more and more isolated with the rise of suburban living, greater job demands, the availability of in-home and solitary entertainments, and so on, we’ve grown distrustful and suspicious of our neighbors because — more than at any other time in human history — we don’t know who they are. We don’t rely on them and they don’t rely on us, we don’t have any obligations to them and they don’t have any obligations to us. We are literally surrounded by strangers.

    And along comes Halloween, and what do we do? We allow our children to go door to door among those strangers and beg for candy. In anthropological terms, feeding someone and eating together are powerful markers of intimacy and demonstrations of solidarity — but we aren’t intimate with our neighbors and there is no sense of solidarity. So we worry. And one way we express those worries is by telling each other urban legends about the dangers of strangers with candy, especially on Halloween. This may also be a defensive strategy, allowing us to ignore the fact that the most real source of danger to our children is their own family.

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    So don’t panic. Take reasonable safety precautions — make sure your kids are visible in the dark, have them carry flashlights, teach them traffic safety principles, supervise young trick-or-treaters, and don’t let Halloween pranks get out of hand. Don’t let these perfectly normal anxieties develop into irrational fears that end up polluting Halloween for yourself and your children.

    Do be sure, however, to teach your kids about the dangers of the walking dead. Because that fear that is totally rational.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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