Small pieces of candy are not just attractive to small children with their small fingers, but also to adults, but for a very different reason.
Many years ago in the break room of a small company, a line started to form for the only vending machine. My friend and colleague stood at the front, undecided, holding up at least five people. “Hey Liz, is the machine broken or what?” the guy at the back yelled, the line was reaching out into the hallway.
Liz calmly replied “the M&Ms are all gone”. “Who cares, just get a Snickers!” said somebody else. “Come on Liz, chose something, we’re all waiting”.
She didn’t. She turned and left the machine empty-handed. I asked her why. She replied “I wanted discrete units.” It was 1988 and Liz was on to something.
Shortly thereafter in the 90's smaller “snack” size and “mini” portions were first introduced into the American market. Over the next twenty years the trend expanded from sweets to pizza to cheese. Last year, 92% of all adult Americans had snacked in the past 24 hours. The long-term success of such a consumption pattern can be explained with economic theory.
As adults we want to – in economic terms – maximize our utility. Utility is the economist’s way to measure pleasure or happiness. Marginal utility is the incremental utility received from one additional unit of consumption. What my friend Liz referred to as "discrete units".
Economists like Liz and myself measure utility in units – we ask how much would a one unit change in a variable impact our utility, i.e. our happiness.
In theory, with smaller "discrete units", you can achieve your optimal level of satisfaction more precisely. In reality, anyone who has over-indulged and ate “the whole thing” has discovered how suddenly marginal utility turns into negative utility. That last incremental unit suddenly plummeted you into misery giving you a stomach ache.
The last sweet piece can turn the entire experience sour and you lose all the incremental happiness gains you had had just minutes before.
Next time you buy M&Ms or Smarties or whatever the small little pieces of sweetness are called in your country, think about Liz's discrete unit theory and try not to eat all of them at once, if you want to maximize your happiness.
*Reference: Small is the new Big…. packaging strategies as quoted in this article: https://vikingmasek.com/packaging-machine-resources/packaging-machine-blog/how-snackification-is-shrinking-food-packaging