Food Choice: Why It Matters and Why It Doesn’t

Food choice has become a major political battleground in the public health fight against obesity. Since the 1970s, the prevalence of obesity and overweight have both increased dramatically. Though rates are now relatively steady, the NIH reports that more than two-thirds of American adults and about one-third of children are overweight. The first shots across the bow, as it were, in the fight against obesity came in the form of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. This act required that manufacturers provide nutrition information on the outside of packages in the now-familiar format. The idea behind this law was based on the notion that the failure to achieve their desired nutrition outcomes must be a consequence of insufficient nutritional information. Rational beings would not desire to be overweight, so providing them the proper information should then enable them to avoid becoming overweight. Unfortunately, of course, this was not the case. Indeed, rates of obesity and overweight continued to climb, prompting a recent wave of direct intervention in the food marketplace in many localities.

Recent attempts to curb obesity include the introduction of stricter school lunch guidelines, the implementation of soda taxes, the barring of bundling kids’ toys with fast food meals, and Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on the sale of sodas larger than 20 oz. Obesity researcher Professor Kelly Brownell of Duke echoed the common justification for these policies, stating that “in this country, we start by hoping people will change their behavior on their own. If the default approach of imploring people to change their ways doesn’t work, then we ask the government to step in and take action.” One can debate the wisdom of such policies using traditional welfare economics. However, the response to these policies has raised an important behavioral economic issue of potential policy relevance.

In the wake of the new school lunch guidelines, one could find popular YouTube videos complaining that children were left hungry by the reduction in calories. Other schoolchildren have tweeted pictures of unappetizing or paltry lunches with hashtags such as #ThanksMichelleObama or #BringBackOurSnacks, mocking the First Lady who championed the changes. At the same time, there has been a rapid drop-off in students participating in the school lunch and an increase in the quantities of food kids throw away while in school. Many kids are angry with the changes, and they appear to be taking it out on fruits and vegetables.  While much of this may be due simply to a mismatch between the new guidelines and kids’ preferences, one senses that there is something more going on. The issue is what psychologists refer to as reactance.

Reactance is a rebellion against any sort of threat to one’s freedom. Early research on reactance found that threatening signs prohibiting graffiti in college bathrooms usually generated more graffiti. Similarly, we have found that placing pictures of Michael Bloomberg in a room full of New Yorkers can nearly double their soda consumption. In other words, the individual’s preference for the good that is targeted by the policy is endogenous to the policy itself. Moreover, the effect does not appear to be due to some sort of advertising effect. It is not just that Bloomberg reminds people of soda. Subsequent surveys demonstrated that the pictures of Bloomberg are associated with a severe sense of reactance. Similar responses have been found in laboratory experiments with fat taxes.

Confrontational policies may be less efficient in achieving their goals if they induce such reactance. Consider the school lunch guidelines. The goal is to get kids who do not eat fruits and vegetables to eat healthier fare. But it is exactly this segment of the school population that is most likely to display reactance and strengthen its preference for less healthy fare in the wake of the change. What might a less confrontational approach look like?

There are many options. We have already mentioned informational approaches that do not appear to be very effective. On the other hand, several have found simple behavioral nudges to be tremendously effective. For example, placing fruit in a prominent position in the lunch line where it is highly visible can trigger a doubling of fruit consumption. Essentially, most of those in the lunch line do not decide what to eat until they are in the line. While all options are available, those that are visible are most likely to enter their awareness. Many similar approaches have been found to be extremely effective across a wide variety of students and schools. Indeed, these approaches are relatively more effective in increasing consumption than paying kids a quarter for each serving of fruit and vegetables they eat.

In essence, individual preferences seem to be viscous. A highly viscous surface will stiffen when hit yet still permit objects to penetrate easily when they approach softly. Similarly, when people are confronted with threatening and confrontational changes, their preferences and behavior becomes rigid and individuals get angry about what they perceive as losses. On the other hand, when the policy is so non-confrontational as to go unnoticed, it can have tremendous impacts and the individual considers all of the change in his behavior to be due to his own choice. This leads to two important conclusions with regard to food policy. We can have big impacts on behavior when the individual perceives the change to be due to their own will. Alternatively, we will face headwinds when trying to impose changes on behavior in a confrontational way.

Several caveats and comments are necessary. First, this area of choice, preferences and behavior is an important new frontier in economics and presents some very thorny issues for researchers. It is very difficult to measure preferences in general, and much more so when we acknowledge that preferences may be endogenous to the policy system chosen. This will make it difficult to precisely determine the size of tradeoffs between reactance and efficiency. Second, while some of the nudges I have mentioned do not face the same efficiency loss due to reactance, there are certainly limits on when they may be used and how much of a behavior change they may induce. If a sufficiently large change is desired, there may be no way to achieve it without inducing severe deadweight loss due to reactance. Finally, there may be ways to frame traditional policies (such as taxes or subsidies) that induce much less reactance and achieve much greater efficiency. For example, individuals may reduce consumption more when a $0.50 tax on soda is imposed to pay for upgrades to local roads than when a $0.50 tax is imposed simply to make one stop drinking soda. In the first case, if the primary goal of the policymaker is to raise funds, reactance might lead to cutting consumption to avoid the tax, instead of increasing consumption to fight the so-called nanny state.

In the end, choice doesn’t necessarily matter in the ways we generally worry about as economists. Preferences are much more malleable than we usually consider them to be, and this can be used to help make our food policies more effective. But choice does matter. Giving individuals choice can contribute to efficiency beyond the obvious impact economists typically cite whereby allowing individuals more choice allows them to achieve a higher indifference curve. Instead, individuals bristle at reductions in choice and demonstrate a willingness to make themselves worse off if it will undermine the policy, creating an unobserved and potentially large deadweight loss.

Author Biography

David R. Just  is a professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. In addition he serves as co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.

2 thoughts on “Food Choice: Why It Matters and Why It Doesn’t”

  1. Eat until you are 80% full. People have a tendency to finish what ever is on their plate. If you have this tendency, use a smaller plate. You may be eating needless calories because you have been programmed to finish the food on your plate.

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