Sunday, July 10, 2011

Does Feedback matter?

The Washington Post has an article looking into the efficacy of the new law in Montgomery County Maryland to post the calorie counts of food items on menus at restaurants. Unfortunately the data does not look good, most diners don't take into account the posted calories when ordering.

Now what does this have to do with carbon free living? A lot given that meat has a much larger carbon footprint than vegetables, and the fats and oils associated with meat tend to lead to higher calorie counts. So why is this the case that people act against their own best interest? Well the cynics in the article exclaim
You don’t need a pile of studies to tell you that people do not always do what is in their best interest. If humans were a fully rational species capable of using obvious information for obvious benefits, then millions of people every year would not keep forgetting to sign up for their 401(k) plans, nor would they eat an entire bag of Doritos when the label says the bag contains three servings.
However, I think that there is something else at play and that numbers without context are just numbers. What most people don't know is what is the daily calorie consumption for an average person? I would argue most people don't know. Another question that people don't know is what are the number of calories for a pound of additional weight on your body? (Approx 3600) Add to that if you eat a gigantic meal you don't immediately gain a pound the next day (unless you are Kobayashi). So causality is very difficult to establish for most people. So they shrug going, oh well....

The other factor at play is that behavior stems from belief. One of the challenges in climate change debate is not the data (which is incontrovertible, the Keeling curve is a great example). But if you fundamentally don't believe there is a problem, you won't change your behavior. Most people believe they are in good shape, I think it's interesting in the article that most people who don't care tend to be white males, who have a well established place in the hierarchy. Conjecture, but it'd be interesting to see who does and does not change their behavior.

There is something to be said for norms, which is a form of belief. In the article, they do highlight one positive light in behavior change -- Starbucks. Where people did alter their food purchasing habits but not their drinks.

Loewenstein, in his editorial, cited just one “rigorous” study showing a positive effect: at Starbucks stores in New York City, where diners seeing calorie information reduced their intake — but only for food, not beverages. Researchers consider that result a bit of an outlier, theorizing that Starbucks consumers are more sensitive to nutritional information. “I’m sure the average BMI at Cheesecake Factory or McDonald’s is a lot larger than at Starbucks,” Loewenstein said, only half-joking.

These norms are important. Liberal circles often talk about acceptance, but we do have norms that specify what is rude and what is not. It's interesting that the article mentions Starbucks as I was there last night after dinner grabbing a cup of tea. And in there was a very obese man who grabbed a gigantic coffee and a pastry. What was great was that he was also riding a bicycle which he rode quite well. I paid a lot of attention to how he was getting on the bike and riding. My friend asked was I going to make fun of him and my response was "You never make fun of someone who makes an honest effort to improve themselves." Hats off f him to being carbon free.

But back to Starbucks and I think most restaurant menus is that the values listed don't actually offer a choice. Almost every pastry at Starbucks is high in calories (400 - 500). The only things that are lower in calories are smaller versions the standard offerings. There hasn't been an effort to offer something with lower calorie density. (Not true, they do offer bananas). So if you are joining people for a meal you have a choice usually of a salad or something high calories. Menu diversity is going to be critical if we truly offer people an viable alternative to choose.

Information and incentives are not going to be enough to change behavior, David Brooks in his most recent column talks about actions and decisions in context. It's a good read about why we need to understand the interleave between incentives and path dependency. It is very reminiscent of the decisions that get made when we are aroused as demonstrated in Dan Ariely's Laptop Experiment where explicit choice seems to be an option but is not.

Understanding our imperfections are going to be critical to improving our actions for our planet. And that's a lot to digest.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home