The hidden life of the office candy dish and what it means when you take a piece

Who takes the last piece? Only the most entitled are bold enough to empty a candy dish while people are watching. Washington Post photo by Matt McClain

The office candy dish is like the watering hole in the Serengeti: If you observe long enough and don’t spook the more timid creatures, you’ll get a peek into the inner workings of an entire social ecosystem.

More than a third of American workers say they have some sort of communal candy container in their workplace, according to the National Confectioners Association.

But for something so common, the office candy dish seems to have sparked more Internet etiquette discussions than actual research. (How to keep candy hogs from cleaning out your dish is a recurring topic.) Mentions in scientific articles and news stories are usually cautionary tales about our lousy dietary habits, and they tend to cite one of two studies by Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of “Slim by Design.”

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Why the takers take

Wansink’s studies focused on how the candy’s proximity and visibility affect how much we eat. He said that of the roughly 200 food decisions we each make every day, many have nothing to do with hunger and everything to do with boredom, habit and stress, spurred on by the brain’s desire for the chemical fireworks of a sugar rush.

“When people see that candy dish staring at them, every time they look at it they have to make a decision that they’re going to grab a piece of candy or they’re not,” he said. “And so 25 times in a row, that decision might be no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Then at Number 26 it becomes maybe, then Number 27 maybe. By 28, it’s ‘Oh, what the heck, I’ve said no 27 times in a row – yeah, I deserve one.’ “

Wansink used Hershey’s Kisses as bait in a central office location rather than on anyone’s desk so that the variables of interpersonal relations wouldn’t pollute the data. But of course, that human factor can be the most interesting part.

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As Candy-Disher-in-Chief Ronald Reagan once said of his jar of Jelly Bellys, “You can tell a lot about a fella’s character by whether he picks out all of one color or just grabs a handful.”

So we hatched our own very unscientific two-month experiment in The Washington Post’s graphics department, based on a square glass jar tended by unfailingly friendly graphics creator Kevin Uhrmacher.

We tracked what he put in and how quickly it disappeared, starting the day after Halloween and ending well before any Valentine’s Day-related sad eating could begin.

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‘The Kevin stimulus’

We proved some very obvious things: Chocolate is popular, journalists stress-eat like crazy people as an election draws near, and candy corn is polarizing.

But the most fascinating part was watching how people behaved around the jar, which sits on a cabinet less than three feet from Kevin’s head.

First of all, nearly everyone who approached the candy while Kevin was present emitted some sort of noise before opening the jar, even if it was just a primal “oooooh!” or “mmmm.” Some politely asked if they could have a piece. Others explained why they shouldn’t have a piece before diving in. A photographer started singing “The Candy Man.”

That’s not surprising at all, said neuroscientist Gary Wenk, author of “Your Brain on Food.”

Wenk called it “the Kevin stimulus.” Basically, Kevin’s presence injected social complications into the food decisions. People had to decide whether the candy was worth the interaction.

“You have to be willing to break into someone else’s personal space and take one of their items that they are offering to you,” Wenk said. “You have to say, ‘Okay, I’m worth it, and I’m going to come over there and talk to you.’ “

Gender, age and status differences can all play a role, as well as how attractive, threatening or annoying the taker perceives the disher to be, and vice versa. Wenk said we’d get completely different reactions if, for instance, we replaced Kevin with a toddler who was cute but looked people in the eyes, a burly biker type or a supermodel.

“If an attractive subordinate has candy on her desk, and an alpha male comes over and she interacts with him, he’ll be back sooner,” Wenk said. But a less confident person might be intimidated and show up less often.

On the other hand, if an alpha male has a candy jar, Wenk said, it would have to contain some pretty spectacular candy for all but a fearless few to go there.

Case in point: Our newsroom’s alpha-most alpha, Executive Editor Marty Baron, keeps a Mason jar of peanut M&Ms on a table in his office. His executive assistant Angela Barnes, who sits right outside Baron’s door, said most of the M&Ms are consumed by just four top editors during meetings in Baron’s office. For the rest of us worker bees, the barriers – Baron’s status, Barnes’s watchful eyes, the jar’s location in an office and even the complicated lid – make the risks outweigh the potential reward.

Interpersonal risk calculations help explain why most people do not want to take the last piece – or, more accurately, do not want to be seen taking the last piece. (Not once in our experiment did the last piece disappear while Kevin was sitting by the jar.) Only the most uninhibited would be willing to risk appearing so nakedly entitled.

The same social constructs mean that people who approach the dishes are humble and grateful to the kind souls offering them free candy, right? Ha! Where do you work?

Among the things people said to Kevin during our two-month experiment were, “Did you run out of all the good candy?” “Nobody likes these.” “Tastes like chalk.” And this cryptically derisive reaction to individually wrapped Rolos: “What, is this the 1990s?”

Wansink said people who criticize could be trying to rationalize to themselves why they shouldn’t take the candy. They’re the people who announce that they’re on a diet all the time to make others feel guilty, he said. They could also just be so familiar with the giver that they feel comfortable giving him a hard time; that is definitely the case with Rolo Woman.

Alternatively, Wenk said, they could just be bad people.

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Why the dishers dish

At least 26 people in The Post’s 700-person newsroom have help-yourself candy containers at their desks (as opposed to those who keep their own private stashes).

A quick survey revealed that they are surprisingly passionate and committed: Five people had supplied colleagues with candy for 10 years or more, and seven others had done it for more than five years. Several people told detailed origin stories about their containers; one sent a photo, another sent a link to where he bought his.

A few confessed to feeding their own candy addictions, but others said they intentionally buy candy they don’t like so they won’t eat it themselves. A few kvetched about regular takers who never offer to replenish the stash, but that didn’t deter them from continuing to supply it.

So why do they do it?

George Mason University associate professor Mandy O’Neill, an expert in organizational culture and behavior, said several motives could be at work.

Offering candy is a good way for newbies to meet people, especially if they’re not particularly outgoing. That was Kevin’s original motivation, although he said he also figured that no one would fire the guy with the candy dish. (Kevin is a bit more Machiavellian than we originally thought.)

A more sinister motive could be a desire to burrow into the heart of an important social network, O’Neill said, as in the case of a banker she knew of who took up smoking in order to interact with managing directors who went outside for smoke breaks.

Managers may put out candy dishes to try to prompt conversations that may not have occurred otherwise, which is the theory behind the communal snacks typical in Silicon Valley offices. Or they may keep candy handy because difficult conversations are easier when people’s brains are bathed in the feel-good chemicals released by sugar.

But at the very core, according to Wenk, it is a way to invite human interaction.

As one colleague said in confidence, “You didn’t ask why I even have a candy dish. It is because I worry no one would ever come talk to me if I didn’t bribe them. And I really, really like people.”