Behavioral Economics, Food and Culture

Picture courtesy of Emily Yates-Doerr

Try this as a thought experiment: Imagine a store that sells broccoli and doughnuts, along with everything else a grocery store sells.  Now, let’s manipulate the prices of those two items to see whether or not we can get people to buy more or less of each.  Why?  Well, we are going to assume that broccoli is healthier than doughnuts and we want to find out if we can get people to buy more of the former than the latter.  Of course, we can probably use price to influence these purchases.  But wait, you might say, that is silly.  Nobody substitutes broccoli for doughnuts.  People buy them for entirely different occasions.   And you might add that just buying them doesn’t tell us much.  Do people who buy broccoli actually eat it before it rots in the fridge?  Do they smother it in butter or cheese?  Is there someone out there who ponders whether or not to have doughnuts rather than broccoli with their steak?  Clearly this experiment leaves a lot of relevant information out of the picture.  We probably would not want to use this sort of experiment to figure out how to address obesity in the U.S.

One of the key insights of nutritional anthropology—of all anthropology, really—is that human behavior can best be understood holistically.  This means that food consumption choices, for example, can rarely be explained by only one thing, like price.  To understand why people purchase items at a grocery store—and why they later consume them, assuming they do—we need to look at the social relations those items help create and maintain, as well as the meanings people attach to particular goods.  We also want to put the whole set of transactions and meanings into historical and political-economic context.

In other words, when you buy broccoli or doughnuts, there is a lot of explaining to be done.  And if we, as a society, decide that we are too fat, we need to look very carefully at the whole context of fatness in figuring out what kinds of policies might help address the problem (for one good take on that, check out the wonderful book Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, edited by Don Kulick and Anne Meneley).

About a week ago, National Public Radio ran a story on an effort to encourage grocery store shoppers to buy healthier food.  The journalist, Allison Aubrey, cited a study by researchers at the University of Buffalo who set up an entire fake supermarket and then recruited some mothers to shop there.  They supplied the mothers with money and then manipulated prices on items they (the researchers) decided were healthy and junk in order to see if they could influence choices.  They discovered that prices can have an impact, although they also found out that the mothers would still buy “junk” if they had money left over after purchasing reduced price broccoli.  The reporter also found a “behavioral economist” who, citing a “theory of loss aversion,” said he found this behavior (by the mothers, not the researchers) unsurprising.

As far as I know, they did not study whether or not anyone ate any of the stuff they bought.

This is stunning, you have to admit.  No, not the price sensitivity.  I think that is pretty obvious.  Rather, the idea that researchers would set up an entire fake grocery store.  Why not study how people really shop, in real stores?  Why not see what they do with the food they buy?  And find out what their families do with it?  Maybe even ask them about it.  No, not in a survey.  Not even in a focus group.  Go watch them.  Hang out with them.  Follow them around.  Check out differences between what they think they do, say they do…and really do.  The fake grocery store merely allows researchers—perhaps this is what behavioral economists do—to assume away big chunks of social, cultural and historic context.  It turns out, of course, that there are anthropologists who have studied consumption practices in a more holistic manner.  Daniel Miller and colleagues (check out the Material World blog) have done some great work in this area, for example.  And read this brilliant story about what happens when an anthropologist observes a family actually eating breakfast.

The vigilant team here at FoodAnthropology has found even more fantastic recent work by anthropologists that help put these choices in context.  Amy Paugh and Carolina Izquierdo recently published work on the battles between parents and children over what constitutes healthy dining in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (“Why is This a Battle Every Night?: Negotiating Food and Eating in American Dinnertime Interaction,”2009, vol. 19, number 2).  Joylin Namie has produced some very useful recent work on the role children play in family food choices, writing recently in Anthropology News that “When it comes to food in US households, children may not be driving the car, but they are often driving the cart” (“The Power of Children Over Household Consumption,” 2008, volume 49, number 4, pages 11-12).  Price, it turns out, is only one factor in determining why people buy food.  We need, as these anthropologists (and many others) show, to pay attention to what people really do and to why they do it if we want to develop policies that will really address obesity.

Otherwise we may as well be comparing broccoli and doughnuts.

Posted by David Beriss.

2 Comments

Filed under economics, media, nutrition, obesity

2 responses to “Behavioral Economics, Food and Culture

  1. Vilte

    After watching Food inc. i think we should consider people’c choices under the light of their income level as well as governmental interventions, or being more precise non-intervention.

  2. Melody

    Great piece, i will continue to research the role of behavior economics in relation to how indivuals choose to eat the food they do.

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