How would you do the division?

I was recently reading the comments section of an advice column (linked from that bad advice) and read this:

I figured this out after doing an activity in a personality styles class where I got people into groups of 10 and handed out a bag with 8 mini candy bars. I told them that the store didn’t have enough so that they’ll need to figure out how to divide them up.

It was fascinating to me as I watched class after class do the following: Group A (the group that was more people-focused in their preferences) would often try to solve this problem by first trying to figure out if anyone cannot eat candy (medical reasons or diet); then when a few dropped out that way, the others would often dither about and defer to others before they would take their own. I observed this type of personality continually considering individual circumstances in their quest for fairly dividing up the candy.

Group B, on the other hand (and these were the people that identified more as task-focused individuals), almost always used math or some really black and white tool to equally divide up the candy. There was no discussion about individual preferences, individual circumstances – they just figured everyone got the same side sliver as everyone else. End of story. It was amazing to watch.

I definitely fit into Group B here.  I think of the candy as an endowment, and they should be allowed to exchange their piece for goodwill or money or whatever it is they want, even if they don’t want to eat the candy themselves.  I’m not sure you get the same goodwill for saying in advance that you can’t have the candy because you’re diabetic as you do for giving someone else your piece.

Plus I’m not scared of doing things like figuring out how much 8/10 is (though cutting into fifths is a PITA).  All we need to make sure we have is a good clean knife and something to cut on.  I figure chocolate probably isn’t worth doing the extended fair division problem with.  (The one where one person cuts and the other person chooses the piece.  Actually, I think the process might be that 9 of the people make cuts, then the 1oth person chooses, then the 9th, and so on until the last person gets the dregs.  But that still sounds like too much hassle.)

Of course, it is possible that the person who drops the number from 9 to 8 gets everyone’s gratitude for not actually having to do the math or the cutting, even if the person who brings the number down from 10 to 9 isn’t worth much.

#2 notes:  I guess it would depend on context.  Are these people strangers? [So cultural expectations regarding first meetings are important!]  Are they going to have to work together again?  [So this is a repeated game!]

#1 agrees: I just assumed it was a class that was going to meet all semester.  And maybe you don’t want to be the person who pretends not to like chocolate when you really do because then you’re going to be a doormat the rest of the semester.  People take advantage of easy-going folks.  Better to show you’re giving a sacrifice, or a one-time sacrifice.

So, which type are you?


32 Responses to “How would you do the division?”

  1. plantingourpennies Says:

    If it’s something I didn’t care about (like a chocolate bar), I’d be more than willing to give it up in the name of goodwill towards others. While I’m perfectly able of rational and equal division into parts for different folks, I think there’s a lot to be said about the psychological benefits that many people get from getting their own complete treat. They get to open the packaging and enjoy the whole thing in their own manner without feeling limited. (In high school, whole muffins always sold out before half-muffins, despite no price difference on a per muffin basis. I always thought people liked getting the whole thing rather than having the choice to pick two different half flavors or having the knowledge that someone else’s hands had been on it, however sanitary.)

  2. First Gen American Says:

    Being a pretty efficient task master, I’d do a combo of both. I’d first ask if there was anyone who didn’t want their candy because if it ended up being an equal number to the number of participants, then that is still faster than chopping them up equally. If it wasn’t an equal number, then I’d do the math and divvy it up equally. I don’t really think giving up your share is being a pushover unless you really wanted it and opted out anyway.

  3. Debbie M Says:

    My first thought was to divide equally, even though it would be a pain. But when I read the answers, I preferred the idea of checking whether someone actually doesn’t want any first. Then after reading your answer I realized I hadn’t even thought of your point about people deserving their fair share of a valued good even if it’s not directly valuable to them. And I realized that people would feel pressured to make it so the chocolate would be easy to divide. Interesting.

  4. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I think of the candy as an endowment, and they should be allowed to exchange their piece for goodwill or money or whatever it is they want, even if they don’t want to eat the candy themselves.

    This sounds all “economist” hyper-rational, but is actually absurd. The absolute value of the item to the players has to be accounted for. Just like under some circumstances it can be economically rational to leave a penny on the ground instead of bending over to pick it up. In other words, it makes a big difference that we’re talking about candy bars, and not bricks of gold bullion. You will get much different outcomes to this game if you ask hungry poor people or rich sated people to play it. It’s not just about “personality style”.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Along with that… women (on average) are always going to be more likely to make a sacrifice for the good of the group (assuming a mixed gender group) and they’re less likely to be rewarded for doing so (assuming a mixed gender group). Should that not matter if it’s a small thing? Like taking notes at a faculty meeting? (When it always ends up being the woman who takes notes at the faculty meeting.) The repeated game aspect is also important.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Here’s the economist solution:

      Auction off the candy to the highest bidder, then redistribute the money to the entire group.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      CPP’s point is why #2 said context was important.

  5. Veronica Says:

    I’m of the “let’s get through the silly game as fast as possible” camp, so even though I love chocolate I would willingly forego mine if it would get us through the exercise quicker. I would never have the patience to even contemplate cutting mini chocolate bars into smaller pieces. But the thought of taking a class in personality styles would make me break out in hives anyway.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      With these class exercises you’re generally stuck sitting there until all class groups finish… So how much do you want to make small talk with the rest of the group?

      • Veronica Says:

        I’d rather make small talk on a topic of our choice than worry about dividing candy bars. I get that I’m totally missing the point of the exercise, and that if we were being asked to divide something of value, I’d care more. But mini candy bars?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        If you choose A, you’re going to be spending a lot of time making small talk about candy bars! And probably health, diets, corn syrup, allergies, and chocolate.

  6. OMDG Says:

    Type B all the way. Asking a person to forego their share because they have a medical problem that makes eating candy bad for them should not be the call of anyone other than the person with the medical problem to suggest voluntarily, and strikes me as incredibly selfish and self serving on the part of the people who expect them to do it. I like the idea of dividing equally and letting people do what they want with their share.

  7. bogart Says:

    I’m with Veronica: I’m a fan of chocolate, but I value my time more than I value 4/5 of a mini chocolate bar. Which, moreover, has a 99% of not being “good” chocolate, and thus not worth fooling with anyway. So I’d just bow out immediately and say that someone else could have mine.

    Were I doing similar research I think I’d have been inclined to make the math harder (divide an unknown number of M&Ms, e.g. give the group 8 bags of the snack size but they can’t open them until a decision about how to share them has been made, so can’t know if they’ll divide equally or not) and the physical act of dividing easier.

    I have plenty of friends who are REALLY squeamish about the possibility of being exposed to other people’s germs and who wouldn’t dream of eating a candy bar someone else had sliced up or otherwise touched with their bare hands.

  8. delagar Says:

    Yeah, see, I hate those little candy bars (they have cheap chocolate and corn syrup in them, usually) so I’d give mine up to make the dividing easy. Unless it was KitKat. Then all bets are off.

    But KitKats are easy to divide, so.

  9. Ana Says:

    I’m all for efficiency. In some ways, it would SEEM like getting two people to give up their share would be more efficient, but the dithering and the “no really, I’m fine…” “oh are you SURE” could go on forever. Its probably faster to divide the things up equally in 10 parts and let each person do what they want with their share (eat it, give it away, save it and take it home to their kids, etc…). And, like you said, its definitely more fair that way. Its hard to get my mind truly into this exercise because I generally hate those mini commercial candy bars, and I could see myself giving up my portion without any feeling of self-sacrifice…unless I was REALLY hungry. I never really thought of the idea of using them as bargaining power until you mentioned it but it makes sense.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      inorite? People dither so much! And they want to explain. And you end up finding out about their rashes and intestinal problems and generally just tmi. (I have become cold and heartless and disinterested in my old age.)

      Also class makes me hungry. It’s easy for me to say now that I would give up a mini chocolate bar, but in the middle of a 3 hour class I would eat pretty much anything.

  10. Chelsea Says:

    I would absolutely refuse the candy bar, and I’m guessing someone else in the group would, too. Problem solved. For one, I find eating outside of eating situations gross. Whose hands are going to be touching these candy bars while they are cut into pieces? Were they washed recently? Or slathered in hand sanitizer that I’m now going to eat with my candy bar? Ew. Also, I’m just imagining people trying to saw through mini candy bars with a plastic knife – absurd. If I really wanted a candy bar, I’d spend my own dollar to buy what I wanted and let others have the class candy.

  11. becca Says:

    I would melt the candy down, and weigh out an equal mass for each person, regardless of preferences. Unless it was white “chocolate”. In which case I would donate mine and shame everyone else into not eating it cause, eww.

  12. Liz Says:

    I wonder how much of the Group personality was influenced by the first person who spoke? People like to be led. If the first volunteer leader establishes a stance of mathematical efficiency, people might have just followed along. Similarly, if the first volunteer leader establishes a stance of discussions and emotions. In my experience, people don’t want to disagree with someone’s rational-sounding recommendation and risk the ire of the group. (Alternately, it’s the “sure whatever as long as we get this over with” approach.)

    • chacha1 Says:

      This is a good point.

      The only real-life Group situations I’ve been involved with are in the context of this volunteer board I’m on. And I can attest (as the idea person in the room most of the time) that the person who offers the first idea generally gets agreement just because it means the other people don’t have to think about it anymore.

      It might even be a BAD idea. But they would rather not spend additional time/effort on it 99 times out of 100. In my real-life experience, unless someone’s personal money or safety are on the line, they just don’t care enough to argue with the first idea, or even to counter it.

  13. oil_garlic Says:

    I would definitely divide evenly, as I think some people would sacrifice just because they’re socially taught to do so or just more introverted. Tired of extroverts and men leading the world! Even if I didn’t like chocolate, I would take a piece!

  14. Practical Parsimony Says:

    All this talk of allergies and why people would give up chocolate or get germs is just the kind of conversation to make me crazy. I would just take charge, declare my hands clean and divide it up. I hate group projects, but this the kind of group project I would enjoy.

    I think of things as commodities. If I did not like chocolate, I would take it anyway. Maybe my best friend sitting there would love me more than ever if I passed my share off to her. Besides, I know how sad she would be not getting more chocolate. I would use my power/chocolate to make her happy. So, chocolate in my hands could represent several things: power to do good, a an item to barter, a means of obtaining good will. We all do this but with something more substantial than a miniscule piece of chocolate. I am actually not so calculating in my everyday interactions.

    I have given up things I did not like to someone I just met because the new person helped me. Okay, maybe that is a bad example if I did not like the item.

    When my children complained about something they did not like and left behind, I always pointed out they could take it and trade for something else. My son traded his sour kraut for cookies in the third grade. My teen daughter traded eye shadow she got for Christmas for a friend’s makeup–neither had opened the items.

    • Dave Says:

      “I would just take charge [and ignore everyone else’s preferences] … this the kind of group project I would enjoy.”


  15. J Liedl Says:

    Right now I’m following a diet which nixes pretty much all candy so I’d pass on my share. Rational division is easy but even easier is passing on something you don’t want or can’t use!

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