Here's Why You Can't Control Yourself Around Free Office Food

Did somebody say pizza?

Long ago, a colleague and I coined the term "snulture." A snulture is a snack vulture, an office character who is predictably the first to sniff out free food.

The snulture isn't so much an individual person, but rather a role that we all adopt from time to time. One particularly egregious office food mooch may come to mind when you think of a snulture, but you've probably also been guilty of possessing snulture qualities. There's just something about free food, right?

When an office-wide email alerts everyone to free pizza in the break room, crowds of co-workers you've never even seen before materialize.

"If your office charged five dollars a plate, you wouldn't get that same frenzy," said Dr. Steve Terracciano, a board-certified cognitive and behavioral psychologist. "I just think that our culture places such a premium on getting something for nothing."

There's a lot going on in a person's decision to run-walk to collect free goodies. Some of the behavior is instinctive, according to Terracciano, stemming from our caveman days when, if we didn't eat that wildebeest now, we might go hungry for a while.

"It's reminiscent of survival kicking in," he said. "Food can bring out something primal in people."

But some of the behavior is also learned, rather than an innate holdover from the hunter-gatherer life. Take, for example, the piñata parties common for childhood birthday celebrations, where kids are encouraged to fend for themselves, scrambling to hoard as much candy as possible. Or the sugar-fueled candy grab that is Halloween. "Part of all of this is how you've learned to participate with groups of people," Terracciano said.

Igor Pcholkin
Igor Pcholkin/Flickr

Igor Pcholkin

In the case of head-butting for the last fallen Tootsie Roll, there's a reinforcement principle operating. People are guided, again and again, to dash out to the food line when something free is offered, lest the food run out and you leave empty-handed.

Terracciano said that just one negative experience of being the only one to miss out on the miniature cupcake could be all it takes to make you subconsciously promise to yourself to never be the last one in line again.

But it's not all nefarious food grubbing. Free food also offers an opportunity to commune, face-to-face, with coworkers who are otherwise siloed to their work stations.

Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a licensed clinical psychologist, supports the social notion. "Breaking bread together is a sign of trust," she said. "Sharing a meal together does help people to bond. It facilitates communication, trust and a shared sensory experience."

Even more, food is nurturing -- it's one of the first things we're given for our survival. When we're given something for free without an expectation for anything in return, Terracciano says we feel cared about. So when your company orders a couple of subs on the house, you and your co-workers are made to feel looked after.

It's a good way to build relationships and keep employees happy. And it's not just a one-way street: Not only will employees be delighted and have a chance to bond as a team, but if the employer actually provides the food another psychological level comes into place. "We feel an unconscious sense of obligation when we are given something," Carmichael said. "When an employer is providing and generous, employees will want to reciprocate."

Pallavi Das

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