Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Last Wednesday, Swarthmore students eating dinner at Sharples were in for a pleasant surprise: many of them left the Pasta Bar serving station with tiny candy bars on their trays. What prompted the unexpected handouts, and why didn’t all of the students who ate pasta receive candy?
Linda McDougall, Director of Dining Services, explained that the servers “were giving [the candy] to people who were bringing their plates to the food.” Pasta Bar often becomes messy, she said, with students and servers “crossing over the sauces” and unintentionally “spill[ing] spaghetti all over” as the beloved food makes its surprisingly treacherous journey from serving station to plate. McDougall pointed out that diners can eliminate these problems by extending their plates over the pasta. She said that the servers had “asked if they could reward” the students who held out their plates. Last Wednesday, “They were pleasantly surprised that the entire men’s soccer team brought their plates to the food without knowing what was going on.”
“I really do think it helped,” said server Pat Osowski, adding that once the Sharples staff introduced the candy, students “started bringing their plates to the food. It made it a lot easier.”
Is this psychological tactic feasible in the long term? Professor of psychology Andrew Ward wrote in an email, “A well-documented risk of such an approach is the danger of undermining an individual’s intrinsic motivation to engage in the behavior in the future without a reward. But if nobody was practicing the behavior before the candy was introduced, then employing such a system of extrinsic rewards might be an effective strategy.”
He continued, “It might also mean [the Sharples staff will] need a lot of candy if they’re hoping to sustain the new, less messy behavior. In that case, maybe they can make use of what’s called a variable reinforcement schedule — introducing rewards at random intervals in the future to ensure the behavior continues. Think of a slot machine that pays off only after a certain unspecified number of trials — people will play for hours in hopes of the big reward.” He added, “Maybe those small pieces of candy are the equivalent of a big reward on this campus — I mean, where’s the Dove dark chocolate? Cuz that would do it for me!”