Photo: Elena Veselova/Shutterstock

Why Americans Obsess Over Candy Corn, According to Psychologists

by Nickolaus Hines Oct 14, 2019

Candy corn is one of the most popular Halloween candies in the United States. Some 35 million pounds — 9 billion individual kernels — are made every year, according to the National Confectioners Association. It’s also, depending on who you’re talking to, the subject of extreme displays of devotion or vitriol.

Every October, people voicing their opinion about candy corn is as predictable as hayrides and pumpkin patches. They compare the candy to waxy candles, or defend it with a hashtag, #LikingCandyCornIsNormalAndGood. This being 2019, former politicians wade into the debate with jokes that anyone who likes candy corn should be investigated by the Ukrainians. Meanwhile, the rest of the world still isn’t sure what exactly candy corn is.

Like it or not, candy corn is a staple of American culture, and has been since the 1880s when it was invented by George Renninger for the Wunderlee Candy Company. The Goelitz Candy Company (now Jelly Belly Candy Company) brought candy corn to the masses in 1898, making it the oldest candy corn producer today. These little kernels have resonated with Americans (and pretty much only Americans) for so long for a simple reason, says Lisa Rowland Brasher, president and CEO of Jelly Belly Candy Company.

“Candy corn is an American tradition, and while it has been available in international markets before, we have found that other countries don’t have the tradition and history with this confection that North Americans do,” Brasher says.

Though these days everyone encounters candy corn during the candy-filled month of October (whether they like it or not), it might have originally appealed to farmers especially.

“We know that when candy corn was brought to the market in the 1800s, the harvest season was critical for many families,” Brasher says. “Candymakers at the time likely created the confection to playfully appeal to something many were familiar with. It’s been a tradition ever since. Absent of that cultural significance, candy corn does not resonate as easily in international markets.”

Today, it’s hard to separate that cultural significance from the candy’s divisive nature — something Brasher and Jelly Belly is well aware of.

“We have found over the years that as much as fans love to tell us their favorites, they are also not shy about sharing when they don’t like something,” Brasher says. “They do this naturally whether on social media, at one of our events, or even in daily conversations with staff.” Though she also adds, “We have so many confections and flavors, there really is something for everyone to enjoy.”

But if there are so many candy corn haters out there, who is eating the 35 million pounds of candy corn made every year? The only clear answer is that the loudest voices in the room are not necessarily the most representative.

“People are significantly more likely to argue about things they can’t reasonably change,” says Matt Scillitani, a demographic researcher at Remedy Review who studied psychology and marketing at East Carolina University. He adds that arguing allows people to stand on a moral high ground, but “those who argue almost never act.”

Just like people in 19th century America were perfectly positioned to create candy corn, people in 21st century America are perfectly positioned to argue about it.

“These behaviors can be seen more often in individualist countries like the United States, Germany, and Australia,” Scillitani says. “The need to stand out and be different leads untalented, insecure people to form strong opinions and argue frequently to be in the spotlight without having to possess any positive skills or invest time into being productive.”

The stronger someone feels about a topic, the more likely they are to defend it. This mindset commonly plays out in moral and religious debates. It’s especially evident in politics. When people already have an opinion on something, it’s easy for them to become more polarized and express extreme viewpoints. The most opinionated people who have a strong voice on every topic, Scillitani says, have several traits in common: “insecurity, lack of self-awareness, and (usually) lower intelligence.”

Account for social media and the strong individualism inherent to the character of most Americans, and you have a stew brewing at just the right temperature to conjure up very public displays of candy corn partisanship.

“Individualism produces more argumentative, socially insecure people,” Scillitani says. “This, combined with the total acceptance of social media adds a grandiose, narcissistic zest into the mix. The product is people arguing about whether a dress is black and blue or white and yellow.”

Yet while the opinions about candy corn are limited to people from the US, passion about food is human nature, says Nicole Gravagna, a neuroscientist, owner of NeuroEQ, and the author of MindSET Your Manners.

Humans require a lot of calories. Sharing food and talking about it — even if it’s just candy corn — connects us.

“Holidays, local traditions, and community norms include the symbols that help people feel like they belong,” Gravagna says. “In other words, trivial symbols remind people that they will be fed if they can’t support themselves. Trivial symbols like candy corn mean ensured survival for a human.”

In short, Americans are going to express exaggerated opinions about candy corn every October. It’s simply the American way. The best approach to handling the overblown opinions is a big, delicious handful of yellow, orange, and white candy corn.

Discover Matador