updated 10/19/2005 3:46:51 PM ET 2005-10-19T19:46:51

Scientists studying candy-jar psychology have confirmed what most of us know instinctively: Out of sight is out of mind.

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Secretaries who were given Hershey kisses for Secretary’s Week ate more of them when the jars were clear or on their desks than when the chocolates were in opaque containers or placed a short distance away.

“It should make us think about what we’re doing” to undermine people’s willpower, said Dr. Louis Aronne, director of the weight control program at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York and president of the Obesity Society, which held a conference where the research was presented on Tuesday.

The study was led by Brian Wansink, an expert on food marketing and eating behaviors from Cornell University. Aronne said it was one of the few experiments to study and quantify the temptation factor that researchers have long believed existed.

Wansink and his colleagues gave 40 university secretaries 30 chocolate kisses in either a clear or an opaque candy jar placed on their desks or 6 feet away. The dish was refilled each night, and researchers counted how many candies were eaten over the next four weeks.

Secretaries ate an average of 7.7 kisses each day when the candies were in clear containers on their desks; 4.6 when in opaque jars on the desk; 5.6 when in clear jars 6 feet away; and 3.1 when in opaque jars 6 feet away.

In interviews afterward, secretaries overestimated how many chocolates they ate when they had to walk a few feet to get some, and underestimated how many they consumed when the treats were in easy reach.

“The less effortful it is to eat, the easier it was to forget how much they ate,” the study found.

Secretaries rated candy as more than twice as hard to resist when they could see and reach it than when they could not. They were twice as likely to say that they often thought of the chocolates or that the treats kept grabbing their attention if they were visible and nearby.

By contrast, secretaries were twice as likely to say they forgot the candy was around if it was hidden and distant.

“Here’s the golden lining: If we move food away from us, even 6 feet, we eat less and we overestimate how much we have eaten,” the researchers concluded. “It may also work for healthier foods, such as raw fruits or vegetables. What makes the candy dish nutritionally dangerous might bring the fruit bowl back in vogue.”

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