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Does wearing a Halloween mask make you feel free? If so, you are not alone. This phenomenon is common enough that the Germans have a name for it: maskenfreiheit. Maskenfreiheit is the liberating feeling you experience when behind a mask.

The concept of a mask is profound. A mask can hide the darker side of a person because it can erase one’s responsibility for their actions. Darth Vader comes to mind. A mask can also bring out a more expressive, authentic, and less self-conscious side of a person. Think of Tony Stark, the capitalist turning into the empathetic life-saver Ironman upon wearing the mask. A mask can also protect others; think of Clark Kent as the mask for Superman, in this case.

Halloween is the one day out of the year when you can openly swim in maskenfreiheit. From the parent to the marketer to the student, you can leave your everyday identities at home. Halloween allows you to wear an entirely new mask with a completely new identity that you don’t own in your daily lives.

No wonder American consumers are expected to spend 10.6 billion U.S. dollars on Halloween this year.

To better understand Halloween’s unique effect on the brain and how it relates to everyday consumer behavior, you must first understand the psychology of identities.

Like Norman Bates, consumers have multiple personalities. Consumers have more than Norman’s two. Think about it in your own life. You act very differently when around family members than you do around friends and even colleagues. You are in beast mode at the gym early, move onto work mode during nine-to-five, and jump into party mode during the other nine-to-five on the weekends.

Social psychologists would go far enough to say that you’re a slightly different person. This insight is invaluable in understanding consumer behavior. Consumers dawn a unique identity with a slightly different personality, vocabulary, set of preferences, and behavior, depending on the context. Brands should strategize accordingly by marketing directly to the consumer’s multiple identities.

Jif will tell you, “Choosy moms choose Jif.’ Kix cereal also targets mothers by declaring it isKid-tested, Mother-approved.DirecTV exclaims, If you call yourself a sports fan, you gotta have DirecTV! Old Spice tells you to Smell like a man, man,” BMW never lets you forget that it’s The Ultimate Driving Machine (and German). The list goes on and on.

Research provides further context behind the strategy of targeting multiple identities. Consumers respond positively to brands and products that share a common identity. For example, when you’re at the gym in beast-mode, you’ll prefer identity-linked brands, such as Gatorade, instead of brands that don’t share the identity, like Vita Coco Coconut Water. Vita may deliver you as many electrolytes at a lower price point, but it does not synchronize with your athlete identity the same way. Gatorade speaks to the beast-mode athlete directly, while Vita does not.


There’s more psychology at play when you go from identity to costume. There is a matching costume for each of the roles consumers play in their daily lives (vegan, parent, lawyer, or raver). Think about it, when you wear your business suit to a meeting or your yoga pants to the studio, you’re not just putting on clothes; you’re putting on the related identity.

Uniforms, or costumes, are context. And contexts create psychological transformation. Peter Parker enters the bathroom, and Spiderman walks out of it.

A fascinating study done at Northwestern University reveals the impact of identity on behaviors. Researchers randomly divided participants into two groups: One group was given a doctor’s white coat, and the others, plain street clothes. The result – the group in the doctor’s coats performed much better on tests of accuracy and focus.

Why? Over time, the brain has subconsciously created an association between doctors and a sense of intelligence and accuracy. And by wearing the uniform, the brain assimilates these characteristics into the current behavior.

The same lesson also explains why people play better at sports (or at least have the confidence to play better) when wearing their favorite athletes’ jerseys or signature shoes. All of these “costumes” are a specific context—this context cues one or more identities, along with them, their unique behaviors, and personalities.

Consumers constantly wear costumes and masks as they shift between everyday identities. The only difference on Halloween is that the costume worn isn’t linked to one of the usual, everyday identities. Instead, it’s like an accountant dressing up as the clown from It or the head of HR dressing up as a Harley Quinn. And because of this, the costumes of Halloween provide an especially rare kind of liberation.

Everyday identities are more predictable than you might think. So much so that simple aspects of your identity can predict buying behavior to a shocking degree. For example, researchers at the University of Chicago used machine learning to predict the age, sex, race, political affiliation, age, and socioeconomic level of research subjects to a frightening extent by analyzing their purchases alone.

For gender, this is relatively easy – men generally don’t buy women’s makeup(yet), and women don’t typically buy men’s razors and aftershave. Others are even more surprising. For example, research shows the best predictor of someone being white is whether or not they buy English Muffins. Similarly, watching The Big Bang Theory is also a key indicator of one’s Caucasian descent. In politics, owning a fishing pole is the strongest predictor of being conservative. And the brand most closely associated with being conservative? Arby’s.

One costume everyone has in common is one of a consumer. Everyone buys things, and the purchases reveal their identities. All of the above might creep you out, but for now, enjoy the annual opportunity to shed identities and swim in your favorite mask. Happy Maskenfreiheit, everyone!


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