November 4, 2014

Why Not ‘Treat or Trick!’, Instead of ‘Trick or Treat!’​?— Workplace Implications of Halloween ‘Stick-and-Carrot’ Psychology

TRICK OR TREAT!On Halloween, ghoulish and princessy kids perch at your door shrieking “trick or treat!” But, if you think about it, that makes no sense.

That’s because “trick or treat!” seemingly violates principles of psychology and logic by presenting the adverse consequence, i.e., punishment, of non-compliance before specifying what form of compliance is being requested.

In effect, it amounts to presenting a threat (of punishment, viz., the trick) before indicating what can prevent it (viz., the treat), much as “Consequences or Truth!” does (instead of “Truth or Consequences!”—the name of a once-popular TV quiz show).

In its simplest terms, “trick or treat” is a variant of a “stick-and-carrot” presentation sequence, rather than the customary “carrot-and stick” format (which raises the question why is “carrot-and-stick” the normal, natural order?) However, unlike “trick or treat”, “stick or carrot” primarily juxtaposes a punishment and a reward, rather than a punishment and a precondition for avoiding it (with the reward of punishment-avoidance implied).

So, shrieking “trick or treat!” is like having signs on a highway that say “Pay $150 fine or drive slow!” or declaring “Or-else, or do it!” It seems that what the kids should be saying to most logically and effectively sell their requests for treats is “treat or trick!”, i.e., “Carrot, or stick!” (the comma making it clear that the “or” excludes both), in the natural order of antecedent requirement/request and alternative negative consequence. Or so it seems to the adult logical mind.

So, this raises several questions:

1. Why do the trick-or-treating kids reverse the most natural, logical and seemingly most effective order of presentation, namely, “treat or trick” as request and threat for non-compliance, i.e.,  why do they present stick-and-carrot, rather than carrot-and-stick?

2. Is there some deep rationale for the reversal that may be of relevance to work and workplace performance, reward and punishment schemes?

Tackling the first question, we may run with the facile answer, which is “they’re kids”, insensitive to the order of presentation or the logic of behavioral management, and that, therefore, they all end up shouting “trick or treat” as a matter of statistical 50-50 chance, or possibly because the first kid who presented the proposition that way was especially big or naturally scary, widely emulated, and/or very insistent about having things done his way.

Halloween Recency and Primacy Effects

More likely is the probable role of what is called the “recency effect”: In the presentation and absorption of information, the most recent or last is among, if not the most vividly remembered, like the last digit of a phone number or the end of a novel. True, there is the “primacy effect”—the superior and most emotionally charged recall of the first thing in a sequence; but since kids are notorious for their short attention spans, by the time the last element of a sequence is presented, the first is likely to be forgotten (much as the often caricatured zonked pot smoker can’t remember the beginning of his sentence by the time he finishes it).

Alternatively, perhaps the explanation is that kids know that adults generally listen and respond only to the last thing that they, the kids, say (as the adults cave in and start to pay attention), not the first, e.g., “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” or “Can we get a puppy? How about a cat? Can we get a pony? Can we get a python?” (“No. No python!”)

Assuming that the kids want a treat more than the chance to play a trick, it makes sense to exploit the recency effect in this way—unless, in fact, they’d really (unconsciously) prefer the chance to toilet paper bomb front porches and are stating “first things first” when they say, “trick or treat!”

(Another proposed explanation seems less than compelling: as linguists did in a post suggests that”trick or treat!” became the norm because the pronounced vowel “e” in treat is longer than the “i” in “trick”. However, why the vowel length would matter seems unclear.)

Assume the kids are on to something in using a reversal of the natural order of presentation and sales pitch. How can the underlying principles and purposes be applied in business, incljding the workplace—by employers and/or employees?

Workplace Applications of “Trick or Treat!” Psychology and the Scary Encyclopedia Salesman

In fact, the kids are employing a common sales technique that can be applied with great effectiveness. For example, consider an encyclopedia salesmen who says to skeptical, resistant parents, “Well, you can let your child fall behind his classmates and risk his entire future, or you could provide him with the Encyclopedia Gigantica.”

This is a close analogue of the “trick or treat!” reversal: feared punishment first, desired behavior (and implied reward of punishment avoidance) second. Here, the salesmen is operating as though a “stick-and-carrot” presentation will be more effective than a “carrot-and-stick” sequence.

Assuming that, in this instance, the attention span of the parents is longer than that of a trick-or-treating kid, the recency effect is unlikely to explain the effectiveness of the sequencing. Instead, the salesman’s technique seems to rely more on the psychology of horror and disaster movies: Frighten your audience first, to get and rivet their attention, before providing them with relief, e.g., of escape or overcoming the threat.

This “fear-relief” sequence of presentation may be justifiable in evolutionary terms, to the extent that in prehistoric jungles, among our ancestors who survived to breed us, fear, danger and the prospect of pain almost certainly trumped desire and the prospect of pleasure in situations that presented both, e.g., stumbling into a lover’s hideaway that turned out to be the cave of a gigantic saber-tooth tiger.

In its clearest technical formulation, the principle is this: “Utilize negative reinforcement to motivate compliance.” Contrary to the common misconception, this does not mean “utilize punishment”; rather, it means “remove (the threat of) punishment”, as a means of reinforcing desired behavior, e.g., giving a treat.

This is perhaps the fundamental principle, technique and motivation underlying the “innocent” “trick or treat!” reverse presentation favored by kids—which has its counterparts and place in business and workplace behavioral management, in addition to its role in sales.

For example, the floor manager of a struggling start-up, under the gun because of unmet deadlines, lagging production lines and unfilled customer orders, has to motivate his crew with a “pepper” talk (the opposite of a “pep” talk, in turning up the heat and pressure on them). So, given the choice between saying, “Pick up the pace, or pack up your stuff!”—which is scary enough, or saying, “Pack up your stuff, or pick up the pace!” (which is even more of a scary shock), a manager operating like a treat-or-tricking kid will choose the latter and the negative reinforcement approach that basically amounts to “relief as pleasure”.

The “treat or trick”, “carrot-and-stick”, “good news-bad news” approach can also work, but on different assumptions: Unlike “trick or treat”, which presents information and options as “problem, solution” or “problem, prevention” sequence, “Pick up the pace, or pack up your stuff”, structures the presentation as “solution, problem” or “prevention, problem”. What are the underlying assumptions that legitimize it, given that the rationale is not the phenomenon of negative reinforcement?

1. The audience (crew) mindset is seen to be more of a natural “cause-effect” (not “effect-cause”) than negative reinforcement “fear-relief” orientation and sensitivity.

2. It is assumed that stressing the fear factor by stating it first would probably backfire as a primacy or hot-button effect and induce panic, resentment and/or paralysis.

Because the themes of Halloween are always heavily saturated with the scent of fear, e.g., spooky and ghoulish costumes and other ghastly supernatural associations, fear will permeate all of its interactions, thereby nudging adults into awareness of fear and setting them up—priming them—for the negative reinforcement, fear- relieving behavioral manipulation by kids.

When to Exploit the Fear

This suggests that a manager in a position to exploit fear can use the “trick or treat” model and principle of negative reinforcement with a likelihood of success, much as an encyclopedia salesman who can smell the fear of failure-phobic parents can. (“Give me death, or give me liberty!” could have worked the same way, if American colonists were more fearful of death than hopeful about liberty.)

As for the technical behavioral management principle underlying “treat or trick!”, i.e., “treat, or trick”, it is tempting to think it is somehow the “opposite” of negative reinforcement and “problem, solution” or “problem, prevention” sequence built into “trick or treat!”

The closest thing to an opposite in this connection is the idea of threat prevention (preventing a trick by having treats in hand when you open your door) vs. threat relief (fetching treats from your cupboard under threat of a trick)—both being forms of negative reinforcement. Both capitalize on fear, but through prevention of vs. relief from its bite, respectively.

Reducible to an analysis of the impact of “order of presentation”, these observations serve as a warning or inspiration to managers everywhere…

…When you are forced to utter threats, treating your employees as though they are targets of trick-or-treating or treat-or-tricking should do the trick.


Read more in Employee Motivation

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).