Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On the Subject of Choice

Yesterday I was in my old neighborhood in Manhattan. I took him to the playground in Carl Schurz park. After baby swings and baby slide, forward and backward (oh man, this kid is fearless...), I put him down and let him crawl around and practice his pincer grasp on twigs and leaves.

I don't have any pictures of him eating dirt, but he did.
I noticed no other babies crawling (or dragging themselves) on the ground. In Brooklyn, the playground is filled with dirty, filthy babies crawling around on the dirty, filthy ground. That's where I got the idea it was okay in the first place.

It's just one data point, but I wonder if I would never have put him down had I only gone to parks in my old neighborhood. My point is, cultural norms are strong predictors of behavior; the playground episode is but one example.

That's why I agree with the Bloomberg administration's ban on large sodas.

(If you have been living under a rock, on Thursday, the New York City Board of Health voted to limit the size of sugary beverages sold in certain establishments in the city.)

I know, I know. What about "choice" and treating people like adults and blah blah blah?

Photo credit: Alexander Kaiser
I agree, it feels obnoxious. We all think we should be allowed to do whatever it is we want to do (usually within legal limits, although not always).

But as James Surowiecki outlines in his excellent piece from the New Yorker's August 13, 2012 Financial Page, it turns out that we are not, in fact, the masters of our own decision-making processes. (Emphasis is mine.)

An executive at the American Beverage Association has dismissed the plan, saying that “150 years of research finds that people consume what they want.” Actually, the research shows that what people “want” has a lot to do with how choices are framed. In one well-known study, researchers put a bowl of M&M’s on the concierge desk of an apartment building, with a scoop attached and a sign below that said “Eat Your Fill.” On alternating days, the experimenters changed the size of the scoop—from a tablespoon to a quarter-cup scoop, which was four times as big. If people really ate just “what they want,” the amount they ate should have remained roughly the same. But scoop size turned out to matter a lot: people consumed much more when the scoop was big. This suggests that most of us don’t have a fixed idea of how much we want; instead, we look to outside cues—like the size of a package or cup—to instruct us. And since the nineteen-seventies the portion sizes offered by food companies and restaurants have grown significantly larger. In 1974, the biggest drink McDonald’s offered was twenty-one ounces. Today, that’s roughly the size of a “small” drink at Burger King. In effect, the scoops have got bigger, and consumption has risen accordingly.
Not convinced? Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of Predictably Irrational, a brilliant book by behavioral economist Dan Ariely. (Emphasis is mine.)
[M]ost people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context. We don’t know what kind of racing bike we want--until we see a champ in the Tour de France ratcheting the gears on a particular model.... We don’t even know what we want to do with our lives--until we find a relative or a friend who is doing just what we think we should be doing. Everything is relative, and that’s the point. Like an airplane pilot landing in the dark, we want runway lights on either side of us, guiding us to the place where we can touch down our wheels.
I have news for you. Up until now, those runway lights have been established by advertisers and marketers for companies like Coca Cola and Pepsico and executives at the American Beverage Association like the one quoted in the New Yorker article. Companies have a fiduciary responsibility not to you but to their investors. Their goal is to maximize profit; to maximize profit, they must sell more goods.

Given that there is a direct link between drinking soda and obesity, regardless of income or ethnicity, I don't think it's wildly unreasonable for the city to try to reset the norm. In 2010, the New York City Department of Health reported a 23 percent obesity rate (versus 18 percent in 2002). Of the obese population, nearly 40 percent drink on average at least one sugar-sweetened beverage every single day.

We all share the burden of the health issues related to obesity (not to mention Type II diabetes) in the form of increased emergency department visits to public and not-for-profit hospitals (who receive tax breaks in exchange for the uncompensated care they provide), higher health insurance premiums, increased work absenteeism and classrooms disrupted by children zonked out on sugar.

Humans are social creatures. We are influenced by each other and by our surroundings. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But those who think they are not susceptible to marketing and the basic laws of behavioral economics are kidding themselves.

Our "choice" on beverages -- and a multitude of other products -- has already been manipulated. Government is the only body with the scope and resources to counteract the deleterious effects of the last forty years.

I'd love for my son to grow up in a world where "normal" is a twelve-ounce soda instead of a cup the size of his head.  As Surowiecki notes, "once people have a few sixteen-ounce drinks they may find that sixteen ounces is plenty." If they want more, they can buy more. But I suspect they won't. 

Okay, that's all. I'm ready for the onslaught. Let me have it.