You know it when you see it, but how hard it is to come up with it yourself: a bank of data just sitting there on a plate (literally, in this case) waiting for the imaginative researcher to recognize its worth and find a way of making use of it. The perfect example is this research into the portion sizes depicted in representations of The Last Supper over the last 1,000 years:
Brian and Craig Wansink teamed up to analyze the amount of food depicted in 52 of the best-known paintings of the Last Supper (Phaidon Press 2000). After indexing the sizes of the foods by the sizes of the average disciple’s head, they found that portion size, plate size, and bread size increased dramatically over the last one thousand years. Overall, the main courses depicted in the paintings grew by 69%, plate size by 66%, and bread size by 23%.
I found this after reading an article about the 1lb Double Six Dollar burger (1400 calories, $5,49) which is pushing up sales for creators Hardee’s in the US, while other chains are nudging customers in the direction of salads and lighter chicken and fish versions (Fast Food Chains Buck The Healthy Trend). The CEO of Hardee’s says, predictably “…the issue is simply about choice, the long-held American value of letting people make their own decisions.”
At the same time, I was wondering why on earth the UK government didn’t kill two birds with one stone (obesity epidemic & huge deficit) by bunging a whopping great tax on nutrition-free foods that are high in sugar and fat like sweets, fizzy drinks, cakes and biscuits. Either obesity is a bad thing as the government keeps telling us, or it isn’t: if it really is that bad, then we need disincentives to nudge us into better eating habits, and this is one that the government could benefit from at the same time as being kind to humans.
I use the word ‘nudge’ purposely, since it’s the title of a recent book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein about the whole concept of ‘choice’ in politics. To summarise their argument, it’s virtually impossible to offer completely ‘free’ choice, because things like recency and primacy effect, for example, will make certain choices more appealing than others: we rarely make rational decisions. For this reason, they advocate a kind of paternal libertarianism, where you get choice, but the order in which those choices are given, and the way in which they are presented, nudge you towards doing stuff that is eventually going to be good for you. (See http://nudges.org/ for more). I’m not saying it’s a great book – it’s repetitive, and they tend to drone on for pages about stuff that you already understood having read the back cover, but it’s difficult to disagree with the premise, and it’s very helpful to know about some of the insidious uses that the theory is used for (for example, those questionnaires that ask you whether you intend to buy something in the next year – it’s a psychological trick, because research shows that if you even think about it, you’re more likely to actually do it at a later date. Scary).
And indeed, there is a study which suggests that junk food taxes are more effective than health food subsidies. In short, when healthy food is discounted, buyers spend the resulting spare cash on junk food. When junk food is taxed, buyers avoid it and spend what they save on healthy food. Read the article for the detail, but the gist is that although there’s a balance to be achieved between taxing and subsidy, taxing junk food wins out every time.
I keep having to remind myself what ‘disingenuous’ means, because although it’s a pejorative term, it always sounds vaguely positive (a mixture of ‘ingenue’ and ‘ingenious’). The Hardees story is maybe the one that will finally make me remember: nothing defines ‘disingenuous’ more than someone who claims that what is clearly a targeted marketing campaign that capitalizes on unhealthy cravings is offering choice. A year ago, even a McDonald’s representative admitted that it was salt and fat that was the recipe for McDonalds’ success.
As an ex-smoker, I applaud the smoking ban: it makes it a hundred times easier not to smoke when everywhere you go, there are little incentives not to light up: if you can’t smell cigarette smoke, you don’t want to smoke. Likewise, it’s a lot easier to eat healthily when the choices you have nudge you towards better nutrition. And for the absolute last word on the subject, the recent article in the Guardian (Obesity: the killer combination of salt, fat and sugar) is clear about the degree to which we can talk about ‘choice’ with regard to food that is knowingly designed to be the perfect combination of salt, fat and sugar:
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the relationship between the dopamine-driven motivational system and our behaviour in the presence of rewarding foods. But we do know that foods high in sugar, fat and salt are altering the biological circuitry of our brains. We have scientific techniques that demonstrate how these foods – and the cues associated with them – change the connections between the neural circuits and their response patterns.
Rewarding foods are rewiring our brains. As they do, we become more sensitive to the cues that lead us to anticipate the reward. In that circularity lies a trap: we can no longer control our responses to highly palatable foods because our brains have been changed by the foods we eat. [Guardian, 13/3/10]