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Food: More Like a Drug Than Like Pencils

Via Matt Yglesias comes a helpful point from Neil Sinhababu (who blogs here):

I was talking to Neil Sinhababu recently and he usefully drew a distinction between desires you would attribute to someone even if he was asleep at the time (”John wants to lose weight, find a better job, and pay down his student loans”) and desires you might attribute to someone in the moment (”John wants to hang out at the bar for another two hours and drink more beer”).

Matt brings this up in terms of dining choices. "Many of us who might have one kind of desire to consume fewer calories nonetheless find ourselves drawn toward high-calorie orders in the moment," he writes. There's pretty good evidence that food, like many other relatively primal desires, actually changes the way we think when we're near it. Ask someone on a diet if they want to eat a Snicker's bar and they'll tell you that they don't. Put a Snicker's bar in front of them and they'll eat it. The reactions you get on a brain scanner when you put people or animals near food is a lot closer to the reactions you get for drugs than the reactions you get for, say, pencils. David Kessler's book has a pretty good rundown of the experiments in this vein if you're interested.

To map this onto a larger political argument, one of the functions of government is to advantage our long-term desires over our momentary desires. Laws preventing us from punching people in the face, for instance, advantage our general objections to punching people in the face over our occasional desire to throw a right cross at the guy who cut in front of us in line. The individual mandate in health-care reform is a way to advantage our desire to have health-care coverage in case of sickness or accident over our desire to not call health insurance brokers at any given moment or to buy things with a more immediate and sure payoff. Consumer regulations are a way of advantaging our desire for safe products over our impulse to buy the cheapest thing on display.

I don't think most people want laws deciding what sort of food we eat. But it does raise interesting questions. The marketplace is designed for products about which we are relatively rational consumers. But what about products for which we aren't rational consumers? In some cases, we ban their sale (drugs, sex). In some cases, we regulate heavily (alcohol, tobacco). In some cases, we don't do much of anything, and we suffer the consequences of our irrationality (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, certain forms of cancers).

I don't know that that militates toward anything in particular. We obviously shouldn't ban food, or prohibit the manufacturing of large plates. But it helps explain what's going on here, and why things like menu labeling and junk food taxes actually poll very well. People know they make bad decisions in the moment. Part of what they do with government -- and, for that matter, with things like savings accounts -- is try to help themselves make better decisions in the moment. It's not a crazy idea.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 15, 2009; 5:53 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Comments

"One of the functions of government is to advantage our long-term desires over our momentary desires."

I think that I would never, ever have come up with this formulation for the purpose of government, no matter how much time I spent brainstorming.

"Laws preventing us from punching people in the face, for instance, advantage our general objections to punching people in the face over our occasional desire to throw a right cross at the guy who cut in front of us in line."

I think the correct way to say this is that laws preventing us from punching people in the face protect us from *other people's* occasional desire to throw a right cross. Do you really think that most people support with anti-face-punching laws because they wish to be protected from their own violent impulses?

"Part of what they do with government -- and, for that matter, with things like savings accounts -- is try to help themselves make better decisions in the moment. It's not a crazy idea."

The thing is, and I know you know this, there's a pretty important difference between creating a default system that helps people overcome their own impulsive decisions (menu labeling, for example) and restrictions or punishments imposed on everyone, whether or not they state a preference for making better decisions (junk food taxes).

Posted by: polakl | July 15, 2009 6:09 PM | Report abuse

"There's pretty good evidence that food, like many other relatively primal desires, actually changes the way we think when we're near it. "

I've written about this very thing, Ezra!

I hardly ever go out to eat because my brain shuts off when I pick up a Menu. I can go through an hour of mental exercise talking myself through the motions of ordering a salad -- but, the second I pick up the menu, I find myself ordering a Reuben....

I've had commenter argue with me -- like they think that with the right logic they can make my brain work differently -- but logic doesn't change it.

What changed it is that now I'm afraid to eat raw vegetables (at restaurants) so I really don't go out to eat at all.

It's saved me dozens of pounds, I'm sure.

Posted by: katiebird36 | July 15, 2009 6:38 PM | Report abuse

I have no problem resisting food, sex, or drugs. The one thing that makes me lose control is blogs. I need a law (maybe a disclosure requirement of some kind) that can help me resist the impulse to click through links. Am I alone in this?

Posted by: dk10024 | July 15, 2009 7:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure why Ezra keeps affecting to believe that the US has somehow reduced drug availability by banning it. I'm pretty sure that it's the easiest country in the western world to obtain drugs in.

In fact, given the effect of the US prohibition on drugs on the market for drugs, I would have thought that Ezra ought to be in favour of a federal ban on healthcare.

Posted by: albamus | July 15, 2009 7:40 PM | Report abuse

"But what about products for which we aren't rational consumers?"

Great point, Ezra. Not only are we irrational consumers, we are driven by habit as well as reinforcements from our immediate and greater social networks, and are often uninformed about our food purchases (e.g., cheap chickens). Top it all off with inequitable access and socioeconomic disparities and you have yourself a pool of irrational, stressed out, uninformed, uninhibited mess of consumers. Talk about an economic disaster.

Posted by: kristinrvanbusum | July 22, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

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