Heading for the train, you grab a large coffee with cream. Are you hungry? No, but you always get a coffee for the train ride home. You buy a hamburger and order fries on the side. You know fruit, which is available, is a better option but you still order fries. Why?
To understand why so many of us make poor food choices, even when we know better, economists are turning to behavioral economics. Findings from behavioral and psychological studies show people often make choices that contradict basic economic assumptions.
We make thousands of decisions every day. Should you eat breakfast at home or grab it on the way? Do you eat in the car or go to the office cafeteria? If we spent time weighing all the options related to each decision we’d get little done. So we hit default mode and make the choices we usually make. To change our default, we have to enter into a conscious decision making process. You know a bagel with cream cheese and coffee is not as good a choice as a bowl of whole grain cereal, skim milk and fresh fruit which is available at work, but you pass the bagel shop heading to work and simply pull into the drive-thru
The default decision process can be turned into a favorable behavior. Burgers are almost always accompanied by fries. Better options like fresh fruit or a tossed salad may be available, but they are outside the default choice and require conscious thought to consider. What if the restaurant made salad the default choice with a second default choice of fresh fruit? Now if you want fries, you have to specifically ask if they can be substituted for salad or fruit. The healthiest options become the default options. Behavioral economics shows you are most likely to make choice that requires the least effort.
When it comes to health, we are not the best accountants. Cash or credit of the same amount is equal. Yet, study after study shows that food stamps are more effective in helping people make better food choices than giving them an equal amount of cash. Food stamps are for food and so the recipient buys food. Cash is to spend and so the person spends, but not necessarily on food.
We also prefer a flat rate payment process rather than a pay-as-you-go system. People are more likely to buy a gym membership for a year rather than pay for each visit. This flat rate bias can be turned into healthier options. A prepaid cafeteria or school lunch card could be programmed to accept only healthy food. Soda, candy, and cake would need to be paid for with cash. Good choices become easy to buy, poorer choices require effort.
Standard economic theory also assumes that we place more value on future well-being and less value on immediate well-being. This assumption does not hold when it comes to food, decision makers often lack self-control and want immediate results. You know that a fried chicken and biscuits dinner isn’t the best choice because it’s high in fat and sodium, but the fried chicken restaurant is right on the corner. Future well-being is traded for immediate availability.
For people with self-control issues, portion-controlled packaging can help them gauge how much to eat. Wrapped sets of cookies within a box, individual packets of peanuts, and 8-ounce cans of soda offer visual cues to gauge how much to eat and when to stop. Variety and larger sizes cue increased eating. When you serve yourself from a large package or bowl, you’ll take a larger serving. When you’re offered multicolored jelly beans or a buffet with different choices, you eat more.
Next time you eat, think. Do you have self-control issues and are you better off buying ice cream sandwiches instead of a half-gallon to keep the serving size reasonable? Do you need a prompt to urge you to make better choices? Are you in default mode? Maybe it’s time to adjust your settings.