A few weeks ago, we got an e-mail from a reader Vishal Dosanjh, who lives in St. Louis:
My daughter asked me this morning why the fancy neighborhoods are the best places to go trick-or-treating. It puzzled me for a moment and then realized it was an economic question. I gave her an answer about disposable income and societal expectations. Anyway I thought it might be up your alley, and I wonder if it’s even true. Do wealthy neighborhoods/people actually give out better candy? She’s 8 by the way.
We set out to answer Vishal’s question in our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast. It’s called “How to Maximize Your Halloween Candy Haul.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)
After speaking to Vishal and his daughter, Sophia, we learned that their neighborhood isn’t very good for trick-or-treating: too many houses don’t participate and Vishal is worried about safety. So they wanted to find another St. Louis neighborhood that would be better.
Enter the economists.
In this episode, you’ll hear from John List, the University of Chicago economist who has been featured here many times (and in SuperFreakonomics), often for his excellent research into charitable giving.
You’ll also hear from Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow, the real-estate data empire. Zillow has built a trick-or-treating index that incorporates home value, housing density, walkability, and safety.
Unfortunately, that index did not include St. Louis — but Zillow was kind enough to run the numbers there for Vishal and Sophia, and came up with just the right neighborhood for their candy-hunting.
Hopefully we will let you know sometime soon how Sophia fared.
Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It’s that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, co-author of the books and blog of the same name – it is “the hidden side of everything.” Dubner, you’re in New York and I’m going to guess that, since you’re on the radio today, you’re warm and safe and dry from this storm, yes?
Stephen J. DUBNER: I and mine are fine. We got very lucky, but a lot of people are hurting in a lot of ways here, and there’s all kinds of chaos. Not surprisingly, the famous Village Halloween Parade tonight has been cancelled. It’ll probably be a pretty muted Halloween everywhere on the East Coast. But we’re still hearing from other parts of the country, looking for answers. A listener in St. Louis named Vishal Dosanjh wrote to us with a Halloween dilemma. He’s got an eight-year-daughter, Sophia, and she of course wants to go trick-or-treating. But the neighborhood where they live isn’t so great. Here, I’ll let dad explain:
Vishal DOSANJH “I’d say it’s on the higher end of a crime rate. There’s not many people that are keeping their lights on on Halloween night. There’s not many people who have Halloween decorations.”
DUBNER: Now little Sophia made some observations based on Halloweens past.
Sophia Dupre DOSANJH “Yeah, some neighborhoods give out more candy. I think it might be because maybe they have more money to buy candy. Or something like that.”
RYSSDAL: Yeah, something like that. That’s a pretty savvy eight-year old, man! I don’t think my kid could figure that out.
DUBNER: Exactly and Vishal, her dad, wanted to know, is little Sophia right? Do richer neighborhoods actually give out better candy on Halloween? So we turned to John List. He’s a University of Chicago economist who’s done a lot of research on a related topic: door-to-door charitable giving. He’s looked at wealthy neighborhoods and less wealthy neighborhoods. Here’s what he had to say:
John LIST: “One of the best ways to go is to look for a community that is public-spirited and look for the wealthier parts of that community, and then to approach that community for your candy gifts.”
RYSSDAL: All right, first of all, that takes all the charm out of it. I mean, if you’ve got to take a spreadsheet out to go trick-or-treating, you’re doing something wrong. But straight-up wealth is not what he’s talking about, right? Don’t go immediately to the richest places in the richest places.
DUBNER: That’s right. There are other factors to consider. We also talked to the folks at Zillow, the online real-estate database, which created a “trick-or-treat index,” trying to identify the best trick-or-treating neighborhoods in the top 20 trick-or-treating American cities. Here’s Zillow’s chief economist, Stan Humphries,
Stan HUMPHRIES: “From an economic perspective, we thought about children as kind of goal-maximizing automatons -- which factors would you look at if you were trying to maximize your haul of candy on Halloween evening?”
RYSSDAL: “Goal-maximizing automatons?” I’m pretty sure I’m appalled, actually. What does Zillow have to say about how it constructs this index? What do they use besides home value, which is what they’re known for?
DUBNER: OK, so in addition to home value, they look at neighborhood density, a walkability score, and crime data. Unfortunately, St. Louis, home of Vishal Dosanjh and his daughter Sophia, didn’t make Zillow’s list of Top 20 cities. But Zillow was good enough to run the numbers for us in St. Louis, and the neighborhood they and came up with is St. Louis Hills, which isn’t too far from where the Dosanjhes live. It’s got nice houses, close together, a good safety score. Here’s Rick Bonasch, who lives in St. Louis Hills. He says he and his wife spend about $300 on Halloween candy.
Rick BONASCH: “I mean we have 20 houses on each side of the block. So every house is going to have somebody on their front porch giving out candy.”
RYSSDAL: All right, this is going to sound terrible, but what if you’re like me and you just turn off your lights and pretend you’re not home?
DUBNER: On that block, you will stick out like a sore thumb. That’s actually the point -- John List points out that, while giving away candy on Halloween is such small stakes are, it looks a lot like the other giving he studies. What he’s found is that, while we give in some part simply to be generous – altruistic -- we give in larger part because we want to be seen as being generous:
LIST: “And what we find is that for every dollar given, roughly seventy cents of that dollar is due to social pressure, and thirty cents is due to altruism.”
RYSSDAL: That’s tough, man -- 70-30! We’ve talked about this before, though. It’s peer pressure, right? It’s just really cynical.
DUBNER: That’s exactly right. I do have a feeling that tonight, especially in the parts of the country where Sandy has hit hard like New York, that 70-30 split will be reversed. Because hardship often brings out the best in us. I have a feeling that tonight, the generosity – and the candy – will be flowing. I hope so, at least. My kids are getting ready to go.
RYSSDAL: If you live in New Jersey, by the way, Gov. Christie has postponed Halloween. It’s now going to be November 5th, in case you’re keeping track. Stephen Dubner – he’s back in a couple of weeks. Freakonomics dot-com is the web site. See ya, man.
DUBNER: Happy Halloween, Kai.
RYSSDAY: Yeah, bah humbug.