The Economics of the Candy Jar

If you want to see where you fit into the workplace hierarchy, put a jar of candy on your desk and see who eats from it.

Photo credit: Troy McCullough, CC BY 2.0.

If you’ve ever put a candy jar on your desk at work—or if you know someone in your office who does—you’ll want to read this analysis from the Washington Post:

There are a few statistics about clear jars vs. opaque jars and so on, but the biggest takeaway is that the person distributing the candy plays a huge role in how quickly the candy is consumed, as follows:

[Neuroscientist Gary 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.

Kevin, in this example, is a WaPo graphics creator. The Washington Post reports that “nearly everyone who approached the candy while Kevin was present emitted some sort of noise before opening the jar,” from a minimal “mmmmm” to an actual conversation.

In other words: you don’t just take something off someone’s desk, even if it’s there for the taking. You say something to acknowledge what you’re doing, and to acknowledge that your action comes with the candy-giver’s implied consent.

It gets more complicated if the person with the candy is female.

“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.

The WaPo doesn’t comment on the behavior between attractive male subordinates and women, or any type of non-heteronormative pairing, which is unfortunate.

But the jist of the story seems to be that the more power you have in relationship to your colleagues, whether that derives from your position on the org chart or your so-called “attractiveness,” the less likely people who have less power than you will take your candy. (People who have equal or more power than you, as in the “alpha male” example above or in the WaPo’s analysis of which “top editors” felt comfortable taking candy from the executive editor’s desk, will continue to eat your candy.)

Obviously all discussions of “power” need huge disclaimers and air quotes, because power is subjective and cultural and is often distributed in unequal and flawed ways, but also: if you want to see where you fit into the workplace hierarchy, put a jar of candy on your desk and see who eats from it.

Hat tip to Alison Green for linking to this story on Ask A Manager, where I first read it. To the rest of us: if you have a jar of candy on your desk, or if you take candy from other people’s jars, does your experience match the WaPo’s findings?