It's not about the food—it's about your surroundings.
March 16, 2015 5:53 AM   Subscribe

This Fast-Food-Loving, Organics-Hating Ivy League Prof Will Trick You Into Eating Better: Mother Jones on food psychologist Brian Wansink's work with restaurants, grocery stores, and schools on how to encourage better eating.
posted by Stacey (105 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
In 2008, he'd independently funded a study on Happy Meals, spending three weeks watching kids dine. He found that it didn't matter much what McDonald's put in the meal. Kids mainly cared about the toy

Heh. We went to Wendy's this weekend, and I got my son a kids meal. The "toy" it came with was a set of flat printed cardboard characters it took two of us 15 minutes to put together. They broke apart almost immediately. Whatever happened to getting a nice hunk of plastic? Next time I'll be sure to ask for the baby toy so at least he can have a nice book.

A little more on topic, I like this guy and I think he makes a lot of sense. I like the story at the end about the frozen green beans- I really do feel better about myself as a mother when I pull out some frozen veggies with the meal.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:07 AM on March 16, 2015


A lifelong libertarian, he also opposes soda taxes and laws that require fast-food restaurants to post nutritional information. He considers such tactics elitist, and he hates nothing more than elitism.

Please tell me how forcing corporations to provide information to consumers so that they can make up their own mind is elitist. This guy is a dumbass.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:07 AM on March 16, 2015 [44 favorites]


I also enjoyed the 9 Ways to Eat Better Without Really Trying.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:07 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


After all, don't companies want us to consume as much of their product as possible? Wansink explained that this isn't always the case. For a 2008 study, for instance, his researchers secretly observed 213 diners at 11 Chinese buffets across the United States, noting details like where they sat, how long it took them to finish eating, which foods they chose, and how many times they returned to the buffet

"All-you-can-eat buffets, unlike most restaurants, don't want you to eat as much as possible" is not exactly top-tier Slatepitching.
posted by escabeche at 6:18 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Nutrition facts are soooo elitist, oh my gosh! We need the freedom to be safe from knowledge, that's why I am a libertarian. For real though, eat some Taco Bell. It's healthy. I don't see why we should feed kids fruits or vegetables with laws, we should just decorate differently.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:18 AM on March 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


Please tell me how forcing corporations to provide information to consumers so that they can make up their own mind is elitist.
Like most present-day libertarians, he clearly hankers for the classic Liberalism of the nineteenth century, when you could order any amount of unregulated poisonous patent medications through the mail, wallpaper was full of nutritious arsenic, bread had so many additives it could kill you, and there were none so free as those who froze to death in the streets at night. And, again like other libertarians, he doesn't really hate elites, only those who try to impede the activities of the real elites: those giant corporations he loves and who (reading between the lines here) fund and enable his "research."
posted by Sonny Jim at 6:21 AM on March 16, 2015 [17 favorites]


He considers such tactics elitist, and he hates nothing more than elitism. You might think of him as the anti-Alice Waters. When I told him I was hoping to go to the Moosewood Restaurant, Ithaca's renowned temple of vegetarian hippie food, he winced. "The waiters and waitresses there seem really snooty," he said. "And it is so expensive." He prefers Taco Bell. "Where else can you feed a family of five for under $10?"

I just checked today's Moosewood menu and the dinner entrees top out at $13. A burger is $8.50 and the kids meals cost 4 bucks. Yes, you can get tofu and arugula there. The last time that was "elitist" was about 2003.
posted by escabeche at 6:23 AM on March 16, 2015 [15 favorites]


yes but the 20 year old undergrad serving your food is cool so...
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:26 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think we are doing a great job of throwing shade at this fool, but we should also be tossin' shame at Mother Jones for giving an outlet to this garbage.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:31 AM on March 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


In fairness, the time I went to Moosewood the waiters were indeed quite snooty (oddly so, given how unimpressive the food was). Compared to genuinely fancy places it isn't expensive, but he is comparing it to Taco Bell, which is indisputably cheaper.

Him being anti calorie information is just dumb, but his research some years back on the importance of dish size was eye opening to me. It's actually one of the reasons we now own smaller dishes (which are very hard to find these days, it turns out) and something I notice whenever I am eating off of different dishes. He sounds about averagely quirky for a professor, but has done some important work; his choice to focus on mass market food like McDonalds and large grocery stores is smart in terms of having the most impact.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:32 AM on March 16, 2015 [11 favorites]


9 Ways to Eat Better Without Really Trying

10. Never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. Eat something before leaving the house. (Unless you are that rare breed that is organized enough to make a proper list every time and disciplined enough to actually stick to it)
posted by Seiten Taisei at 6:34 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I do wonder how many of this guy's gazillionbillion studies actually produce replicable results. Psychology has a huge replication problem and it's irresponsible at this point to report these 'One weird trick! Use chopsticks!' studies like they definitely indicate truth without further investigation. Unfortunately, the kind of industry-funded papermill that this guy seems to run is inherently biased towards producing badly-designed, underpowered research in the first instance, before you even start to talk about painstaking attempts to replicate at scale and in a range of environments.
posted by Acheman at 6:37 AM on March 16, 2015 [12 favorites]


A lifelong libertarian, he also opposes soda taxes

He's alright with massive government intervention to subsidise the HFCS in the soda, though?
posted by Segundus at 6:39 AM on March 16, 2015 [23 favorites]


His own presentation of his philosophy doesn't sit well with me. He talks about wanting people to willingly make the correct food choices, but all his suggestions are essentially subliminal tricks while he seems to reject the importance of making truly willing choices based on available information.
posted by dreamlanding at 6:51 AM on March 16, 2015 [14 favorites]


I do wonder how many of this guy's gazillionbillion studies actually produce replicable results.

I bet about 5 percent of them are replicable. Look at the effect sizes he is getting: they are astronomical. For example:

"At restaurants, request a table near the front door. People sitting far from the entrance were 73 percent more likely to order dessert."

I mean come on!
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:57 AM on March 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


He talks about wanting people to willingly make the correct food choices, but all his suggestions are essentially subliminal tricks while he seems to reject the importance of making truly willing choices based on available information.

Because he knows how our subconscious's work.

We may be consciously trying to make responsible and correct food choices, but we all have our mothers' voice in the back of our heads urging us to "clean your plate!" So even if we stick to just a healthy salad at a restaurant, there's bread on the table, and we subconsciously don't want to waste it so we graze on that and before we know it that "healthy salad" is only the side dish to a lunch of All The Rolls That Were In The Little Basket. And we may have tried to stuff ourselves on the salad if they brought us a humongo sized salad because we've been told to "clean our plate!" so even though it is "healthy" there's still a lot of it and that's still more calories than we intended, especially on top of the bread.

It's like the nutritional equivalent of trying to budget for the utilities and rent on the one hand, but then on the other hand getting a daily coffee and croissant from the local foo-foo coffee place because "feh, it's only three bucks, that's no big deal" but then forgetting that three bucks a day adds up and we end up wondering at the end of the month "why am I out nearly a hundred for the month, where did that money go?" He's like the equivalent of the guy saying "dude, that daily Starbucks run is costing you more than you think, so either account for that money or come up with another coffee source."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:03 AM on March 16, 2015 [8 favorites]


The ultimate tension in libertarianism is that free will is overrated. We can talk about incentives and choice under constraint, but these are just ways of pointing out the futility of the freedom libertarianism prefers.

That said: it seems quite possible to agree that soda taxes are elitist and calorie information is ineffectual without adopting libertarianism, so I don't much buy the shade thrown here.

It seems more progressive to contrast concern for plate size with concern about the design of American cities if you want to challenge this kind of work. We're well beyond accepting or rejecting choice architecture approaches: now we need to decide which choices matter most.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:08 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Because he knows how our subconscious's work.

well, arguably, corporations know how our subconsciousness works and are gaming that in order to up their cost savings. and what he's basically saying is that it's our fault, not the corporations, because we should all be highly educated, critical and analytical geniuses who are 100% there, in every moment, contextualizing all of our actions and mapping that onto larger systems level thinking because libertarianism
posted by runt at 7:17 AM on March 16, 2015 [8 favorites]


....Runt, I'm not quite getting a "naughty naughty you should know better" vibe from him - I'm getting more of a "shh, lemme tell you the secrets that the corporations are using against you so you can take back the power!" vibe.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:24 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


7. Want your kid to choose apple slices instead of fries at McDonald's? Ask her, "What would Batman choose?"

But that's how I make every decision
posted by reclusive_thousandaire at 7:30 AM on March 16, 2015 [21 favorites]


From the Mother Jones article:
"Pick red wine instead of white (subjects who did so poured 9 percent less)"

From Wansink's paper:

" wine drinkerstypically poured 3.95 fl. oz. of wine into a standard
baseline (10 fl. oz.) glass, they poured 11.9% more into
a wider glass, 9.2% more when the wine was white"

Those aren't equivalent.

Also, in the study, they had 73 individuals and 504 different pours, but they were measuring so many variables and possible combinations (over 300) that they had to vary multiple conditions at the same time. Is this SOP in pyschology?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:41 AM on March 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


7. Want your kid to choose apple slices instead of fries at McDonald's? Ask her, "What would Batman choose?"

Every time I ask my daughter that, she thinks for a second and then throws a metal boomerang at a clown's head.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:43 AM on March 16, 2015 [21 favorites]


FWIW, when we took our kids to fast food (usually the result of being in a "I can't believe I'm still standing after two weeks of sleep deprivation oh crap you probably need food, don't you?" state), we made the policy that the toy wasn't a reward for going here. The toy was a reward for good behavior. I pocketed the toy and put it in a shoe box at home. When our kids did a particular job well, they got to pick a toy from the box. Now, some 5 years later, my son couldn't care less about most fast food (yay!) and my daughter has Celiac disease so fast food is pretty much not an option (yay!)
posted by plinth at 7:52 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's interesting that this guy's ideological opponents, like Bittman or Marion Nestle, don't dismiss him out of hand. That partly seems to be because he's sort of a fun to argue with, but it sounds like he has some not-terrible points. I believe that kids are more likely to eat fruit in school cafeterias if it's presented in a colorful bowl, rather than a metal tray. I definitely agree that a kid is more likely to eat a whole apple than some mealy apple slices. I think there's room in the world for thinking about how psychological and environmental factors influence eating choices, even if I totally reject a lot of his other beliefs.

I think it's funny that he rejects mindful eating as elitist, though, because it's pretty much free to take a second to ask yourself if you're really hungry.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:53 AM on March 16, 2015 [8 favorites]


well, arguably, corporations know how our subconsciousness works and are gaming that in order to up their cost savings. and what he's basically saying is that it's our fault, not the corporations, because we should all be highly educated, critical and analytical geniuses who are 100% there, in every moment, contextualizing all of our actions and mapping that onto larger systems level thinking because libertarianism

Did you bother to read the article? He's saying the exact opposite of that. This is maybe a quarter of the way through the piece:

The thrust of his research directly contradicts the prevailing wisdom in nutrition circles—that the way to improve America's diet is to teach people about the dangers of trans fats, refined sugar, and white flour. In Wansink's view, that's a losing battle—if we were rational eaters, the snack food industry would already be out of business. "There are a million nutritionists out there that tell you to eat an apple instead of a Snickers bar," he says. "I want to meet people where they're at."

and, barely any further down the page:

So how do you convince restaurants to downsize their entrées and companies to offer fewer chips per bag?

These kinds of changes won't happen unless they're profitable, Wansink says—and they can be.


This guy may have misguided opinions on the goodwill of corporations, and he is clearly biased in his libertarian thinking when he talks about disregarding regulation as one way to solve the problems he's trying to address. But the research he is doing is interesting and worth discussing. This thread could also be interesting if folks would leave it off with the political posturing, read the article properly and start engaging with the actual substance of his research...which is related to his libertarianism only peripherally, as far as I can tell.
posted by dubitable at 7:53 AM on March 16, 2015 [13 favorites]


The article mentions his politics. Discussing his politics is relevant to the discussion of the article, its not like we read an apolitical summary of this guys work, googled him, and found out he has weird politics. Its right there.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:01 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


the quote regarding soda taxes and nutrition labels speaks to this idea that either the economic or the psychological burden of choice should fall on the consumer, not on the corporations who likely have a good chunk of their R&D budget devoted behavioral psych (or at least its proto-formulation of focus testing)

such as this quote:

Something surprising happened: Most people who received the four small bags finished only one or two. In a follow-up questionnaire, Wansink asked the participants how much more they would pay for snacks that came in lots of small packages instead of one big one. A majority said they'd spend 20 percent more.

He took his findings to food industry executives, who were skeptical. Eventually, though, Kraft's Nabisco division began offering snacks in packages that contained several 100-calorie pouches and cost more than the equivalent amount in one big package. It was a hit, and over the next few years, the other food giants followed suit.


and this quote:

"There is no way the government is smart, wealthy, or creative enough to be able to change what people do when it comes to food," he told me, "because it happens all across their lives, where they work, where they play. No one entity can do that."

which is argument in bad faith consider how limited funding is for public health research and how disregarded so much of public health research is by people who actually make policy. the NIH's funding has been slashed repeatedly by people who have the same kind of political alignment as this guy and he's basically giving them a moral out for doing so.

I mean, if you have the basic idea that people have a hard enough time getting fresh food, the parable of letting the free market regulate your health because corporations can make more money from offering less food seems particularly blind to those of us who maybe aren't all middle class folks who live within walking distance from a Krogers

Did you bother to read the article?

I did. I'm sorry I didn't get my point across the first time but I'm not sure if bad faith sanctimoniousness is really the nicest way you could have questioned my claim
posted by runt at 8:02 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


His Taiwanese American wife, Jeryuan, who trained as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu, cooks standard American fare when her husband is home. When he's out, she makes Chinese food—which he doesn't like—for herself and their three daughters.

Applebees and Taco Bell, and he doesn't like "Chinese food." Uh, I'm having a hard time taking nutritional advice from this guy.
posted by desuetude at 8:08 AM on March 16, 2015 [16 favorites]


All I'm saying is that there is more to talk about than his politics--and his research is not 100% all about libertarianism. There is good alongside the bad. It would be nice if we could talk about that.

I did. I'm sorry I didn't get my point across the first time but I'm not sure if bad faith sanctimoniousness is really the nicest way you could have questioned my claim

That was pretty nasty and off-base, and considering how lazy and flippant the comment I was responding to was, I don't really see how I deserve that.

But you win--I'm too upset now to comment any more, so I'll just be on my way. Enjoy the thread.
posted by dubitable at 8:09 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


His "faith in the marketplace" is so pro-corporate-marketing that he seems to view bland overprocessed food as the rightful food culture of the US.
posted by desuetude at 8:18 AM on March 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


The rules about posting calorie counts are elitist because they're intended only to be imposed on fast food restaurants, and the closest the lawyers could get to doing that was to impose the rules on chains of more than 20 restaurants. Elite little boutique restaurants can cram as many calories as they want into steak-frites and creme brulee and not be required to serve it up with a side of "look how many calories you're consuming!" the way they would if they were a chain restaurant offering a lowbrow, yet similarly caloric burger, fries, and shake.

The rule forbidding large sodas is elitist because it ignores that a family of low means might be able to afford one large soda for the five of them to split, but can't afford five small sodas. Meanwhile elites can buy large bottles of wine, rather than being forced to buy it by the glass or by the mini-bottle, for example, and wine is more calorie dense than soda.

The "mindful eating" idea is elitist because it ignores that some people barely have enough money or time or energy to eat at all. The constant question of "am I full now?" would be a special kind of torture if you knew you didn't have enough food available to eat until you were full.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:24 AM on March 16, 2015 [14 favorites]


But he gives me an excuse to not put food in serving dishes before meals, and to not have to wash serving dishes later. If anyone says I'm just being lazy, I can cite him, and presto, I'm being healthy. As long as he's not actually killing anybody, I have to like the guy, just for that.
posted by Anne Neville at 8:26 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Your first link is about New York City. Obamacare instituted the carolie labeling, and the reason its not at places w/ less than 20 locations is that it would be a burden for any small business to accurately include calorie information. Nice try though.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:27 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


So I'm curious about whether people think there's any way to separate his insights about eating choices from his libertarianism and pro-big-business stance. I think there is, but maybe other people disagree. Can you say that this stuff matters, but it isn't all that matters, and it's incredibly naive to trust companies to do the right thing without government mandates?
The rules about posting calorie counts are elitist because they're intended only to be imposed on fast food restaurants, and the closest the lawyers could get to doing that was to impose the rules on chains of more than 20 restaurants. Elite little boutique restaurants can cram as many calories as they want into steak-frites and creme brulee and not be required to serve it up with a side of "look how many calories you're consuming!" the way they would if they were a chain restaurant offering a lowbrow, yet similarly caloric burger, fries, and shake.
Fair enough, but a lot of laws are neutral on their face but in fact have disparate impacts. Fines for traffic infractions, for instance, are no biggie for rich people but can literally ruin the lives of poor people. I'd be curious if this libertarian dude is equally attuned to the disparate impacts of all laws, or just these ones.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:37 AM on March 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think it's funny that he rejects mindful eating as elitist, though, because it's pretty much free to take a second to ask yourself if you're really hungry.

Well, sure--if you're rich in time, right? It's actually his central point, woven through a lot of the article, that not everyone does have a spare second to pause and think about whether you're full. I mean, he goes on to say right then that if you're trying to wrangle two kids and a job and get food on the table, pausing to think about whether you're full at each mouthful may not be an option. And wait, who is most likely to be working multiple jobs without a lot of social support? Ah, yeah, the working poor. So honestly, I didn't have an issue with that at all.

I got the impression, reading the paper, that I wasn't a huge fan of his politics but that his work was really very well done. In particular, I like his shift from "how do we shame people into eating properly" to "how do we set up a society where there are incentives for people to get balanced nutrition, such that they eat better without even thinking about it?" I mean, come on, guys. I thought that changing the systematic processes that lead to obesity and poor health rather than shaming people for their individual food choices was a liberal food talking point. Sure, he's making a lot of points that run counter to the "received wisdom" about public policy and improving public health, but I don't actually think that means his points are ineffective.

People are really susceptible to priming. That's actually one of the reasons psych experiments can be tricky to replicate, because you have to get all the little subtle cues that might possibly prime people to behave in a particular way the same each time. He points out himself that this is an issue when he discusses the study where he figured 'ah, it'll be the same to hand people the same quantity of candies in four little bags as it would be in one big bag, they'll definitely eat the same way then.' Turns out not so much! Marketing and advertising have used these priming effects to nudge people's responses in profitable directions for decades. I'm not really all that opposed to using them to encourage people to make healthier choices and to feel happier about it at the same time.
posted by sciatrix at 8:38 AM on March 16, 2015 [12 favorites]


Can you say that this stuff matters, but it isn't all that matters, and it's incredibly naive to trust companies to do the right thing without government mandates?

Yeah, I agree with this. I actually found myself most pleased, from a policy standpoint, by Marion Nestle's comment that his work is enormously innovative but not necessarily the most efficient thing with respect to public policy because individual corporations may or may not actually pay attention. I feel similarly: I think his research is enormously interesting and that smart policymakers should pay attention to it and use his approach when it comes to encouraging people to make healthier decisions. I do not think he seems particularly talented as a policymaker, and honestly I don't think he does, either; the impression I got was that he was rather relieved to leave the policy sector in favor of going back to the research he's actually good at.
posted by sciatrix at 8:41 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


escabeche: "I just checked today's Moosewood menu and the dinner entrees top out at $13. A burger is $8.50 and the kids meals cost 4 bucks. Yes, you can get tofu and arugula there. The last time that was "elitist" was about 2003."

So you can feed a family of five for ... 20 bucks? If they all eat kids meals? If paying three times the price for a meal isn't elitist, it sounds like its because you got a better job in 2003.
posted by pwnguin at 8:53 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


his research basically says we engage with our food at an emotional level that's also weirdly quantitative more than qualitative (I think? not an expert, for sure)

from this point he claims that we should let corporations know this and, at their free market ethical best, they will make a bunch of money by charging more for smaller packages of food. this is a point that crops up repeatedly throughout the article.

what's missing is, for example, passing different kinds of taxes and subsidies which would encourage that more nutrient dense foods would be more popular or limiting age-inappropriate advertising or putting money into outreach programs targeted at the community level (like churches or schools) or, like we have now, having specific kinds of foods that qualify for WIC and SNAP and incentivizing markets to stock these less processed foods even though it harms free market values

I mean, he just sort of assumes that all policy that advocates for public health is about self-help empowerment. that's a bad faith assessment of the kinds of research that public health actually advocates for (which is a systemic engagement through multiple channels, afaik, not just labelling Mickey D's as naughty food). the things we have now is just the stuff you can pass through the partisan divide because it happens to accord with every 'good' American's sense of individualism and self-actualization.

it doesn't sound very much like he knows what he's talking about and, in the vacuum of that knowledge, he advocates for an extremely neoliberal take on policy much like everybody else in 2015 who has political power
posted by runt at 8:56 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Hey, here's an article about a prolific Ivy League researcher who runs a lab focused on environmental reasons why people eat they way they do."

"Oh, cool, I'll take a look and--"

"Also, it mentions that he is a libertarian and prefers free-market solutions to regulation in all instances."

"BURN THE FOOL."
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:02 AM on March 16, 2015 [15 favorites]


Your first link is about New York City. Obamacare instituted the carolie labeling, and the reason its not at places w/ less than 20 locations is that it would be a burden for any small business to accurately include calorie information. Nice try though.

To the point of like send it to a lab for an exact count? Yeah, that's too much. But it's not at all hard to get a very good estimate just by counting the calories in your ingredients. I do it all the time. There isn't really any good excuse I am aware of for not requiring all restaurants to do this if you are going to make chains do it.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:09 AM on March 16, 2015


Estimates would be less than useless and highly prone to gaming, though.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:12 AM on March 16, 2015


I disagree with his libertarian positions too, but this is really about the least interesting thing to pick up from this piece. For one thing, every study ever done shows that mandatory calorie count postings / nutritional information panels etc. do not work. That is, simply making the information available does nothing to improve people's dietary choices. On that front this guy is simply demonstrably correct. So we can argue the toss back and forth about whether it is an undue intrusion of government power into our personal freedoms to require posted calorie counts and nutritional information labels and so forth (my vote: no, it's not)--but if the question is "how do we actually make people eat more healthily" (which is the actual issue this guy's work is addressing) then that argument is utterly irrelevant.
posted by yoink at 9:16 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


simply making the information available does nothing to improve people's dietary choices

In fact, if I recall correctly, there's a weird effect in which posting the calorie counts actually makes people order slightly higher calorie options.
posted by yoink at 9:17 AM on March 16, 2015


Its an undue burden on small businesses?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:21 AM on March 16, 2015


> So you can feed a family of five for ... 20 bucks? If they all eat kids meals? If paying three times the price for a meal isn't elitist, it sounds like its because you got a better job in 2003.

It's elitist to suggest that everyone SHOULD ALWAYS eat at Moosewood rather than Taco Bell. But the author simply noted that she wanted to go to Moosewood, and for that, Wansink basically shamed her for making choices that aligned with her own food preferences rather than his.

Besides, you can't feed a family of five for $10 at Taco Bell, unless you consider one small taco to be an entire meal. Paying two or three times that for a meal isn't elitist unless you think it's somehow virtuous to pay as little as possible for food.
posted by desuetude at 9:22 AM on March 16, 2015 [5 favorites]


The rules about posting calorie counts are elitist because they're intended only to be imposed on fast food restaurants, and the closest the lawyers could get to doing that was to impose the rules on chains of more than 20 restaurants. Elite little boutique restaurants can cram as many calories as they want into steak-frites and creme brulee and not be required to serve it up with a side of "look how many calories you're consuming!" the way they would if they were a chain restaurant offering a lowbrow, yet similarly caloric burger, fries, and shake.

Somebody made this argument here before and it still makes very little sense as a case for elitism, since displaying that information has no downside for - and places a lot of trust in - the consumer. There are tons of "elite" eaters who would love to know how many calories are in their high-end dining but chains and franchises that serve the same thing at every location are the logical place to start.

On the other hand it's the article's wording that he finds soda taxes "and [posting o]f nutritional information" elitist - it may be lumping together the various shades of his Libertarian distaste for regulation. I think it's easy to make a case that sin taxes are elitist - just the other day on the radio I heard an anti-smoking expert say that raising cigarette taxes would be "especially beneficial for the poor" - you know, since they won't have money for cigarettes. I'm also not sure whether showing nutritional information - at least as done presently - is actually very effective because it is one of those things that offloads decision-making to an overwhelmed consumer. As has been pointed out despite his rhetoric about freedom what he's actually all about is psychological tactics that give a subtle, often unconscious nudge in the direction of a slightly healthier choice.
posted by atoxyl at 9:23 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Whether all his magic tricks are really that replicable and useful is another question.
posted by atoxyl at 9:24 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


you guys want a more substantive critique? fine. I'll apply the same standard I do for all pyschological lab experiments: I'll buy their conclusions when they are replicated.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:24 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


unless you think it's somehow virtuous to pay as little as possible for food.

We used to call it "thrift."
posted by pwnguin at 9:29 AM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


Fair enough. Here is a review of the effect of visual cues during presentation of food on food consumption. It's behind a paywall, but it's an interesting read nevertheless. The entire thing is a review of the concept that he's talking about with the kids, that presentation of fruit and vegetables in cheerful colored bowls will get them to eat more than presenting them in metal tubs. (Well, more broadly that that, but that's the claim it's most pertinent to, along with the Pringles experiement.) It cites a whole bunch of other papers with similar kinds of effects and designs, conducted by a variety of different labs.

Took me about five seconds to find, too. Next?
posted by sciatrix at 9:32 AM on March 16, 2015


thats not replication.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:34 AM on March 16, 2015


Seriously, this is all basic priming. It's interesting in the sense of figuring out what cues shift behavior in the direction you'd like them to go, but it's been around since the 1970s in psych research. It's not at all a novel concept, nor is it something unique to Wansink's work. It's also not unique to working on marketing or use by corporate interests, either. For one thing, it's pretty intrinsic to stuff like stereotype threat, which is another concept considered highly replicable in psych work.

MisantropicPainforest, do you work in a scientific field? I ask because direct, 1:1 replication is something that is actually quite rare in science, with the exception of high-profile and controversial experiments. It's something you do if you are pretty sure the results are dubious in some way. The results Wansink is describing are interesting but not interesting enough for other labs to devote energy, resources, and time to perfectly replicating. Instead, scientists are more likely to take similar results from one experiment and riff off of that experiment, to see if they find something dramatically different if they change a couple of things. If they do, they're more likely to cast doubt on the original experiment, and if that is high profile enough maybe eventually someone will directly replicate it--but otherwise, why bother when you could do a slightly different experiment and add support to the idea? This is a piece that popped up in my feeds talking about how scientists actually use methods sections in practice--they're something to investigate and pick at to see how much you trust the results, not something to copy perfectly and test. Quite frankly, we do not have the funding as a field to do that.
posted by sciatrix at 9:40 AM on March 16, 2015 [8 favorites]


Estimates would be less than useless and highly prone to gaming, though.

Variation might come in things like the amount of oil used where very small amounts can make a big calorie difference, but for the most part we are talking about the same recipes made over and over with standard portion sizes. Counting the calories in the ingredients should be in the ballpark.

But hey, fast food has the same sorts of issues. They are not sending every burger to a lab. Add a little too much mayo and ketchup or overstuff a burrito or put too much dressing on a hoagie and now your count is off.
posted by Drinky Die at 9:41 AM on March 16, 2015


Yes I do, and the reason I am skeptical of Pyschology as a field and experiments like these where you get huge effect sizes (like 75 percent!) and do things like test over 300 different combinations of treatments with 75 individuals and 500 iterations is that in most other disciplines such results and approaches would be more rigorously scrutizined.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:46 AM on March 16, 2015


Counting the calories in the ingredients should be in the ballpark.

I don't see why a restaurant couldn't systematically underestimate and then claim it was their best estimate. In this case, the info would be totally wrong. For lots of fancy restaurant dishes I'm sure the margin of error would be a fudge factor of half a stick of butter or more.
posted by snofoam at 9:49 AM on March 16, 2015


> unless you think it's somehow virtuous to pay as little as possible for food.

We used to call it "thrift."


Uh, only when you're comparing items of similar quality and quantity.
posted by desuetude at 9:53 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Fair enough! In mine, it's very uncommon to see direct replication of results because everyone is working with a different study system (or almost everyone), so people are much more likely to "replicate" trends like this over time. Put down the disagreement to differences in disciplinary culture?

I have issues with psych as a field, too; I just don't happen to have a problem with this one per se.
posted by sciatrix at 9:54 AM on March 16, 2015


Based on the article, I feel like much of the research is either not that interesting, potentially exaggerated or just not represented well. I mean, if diners in America using chopsticks eat less, is that because they are eating slower because they are not that good at chopsticks? Or are the kind of people who choose to use chopsticks also likely to eat less? It seems like a lot of these observations are not very meaningful. Stuff like being 80% more likely to eat desert based on where you are sitting seems pretty suspect to me. From the article it's not very clear that he's doing something I would consider to be science, and it's not clear that one could draw any useful conclusions from his observations.
posted by snofoam at 9:58 AM on March 16, 2015


The man is almost literally wearing a tinfoil hat. It's like he wants you to not take him seriously as a scientist.
posted by chavenet at 10:00 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would also say that the political views of a scientist are probably much more central to discussion when their work seems so vulnerable to bias.
posted by snofoam at 10:03 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Really? What do you think a non-libertarian might say on these topics?
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:12 AM on March 16, 2015


What do you think a non-libertarian might say on these topics?

From the article: Nutritionist Marion Nestle thinks Wansink's approach doesn't go far enough. "He's enormous fun and has clever ideas about how to nudge people to make healthier food choices," she said in an email. But trying to convince individual companies to make the right choices "is highly inefficient—some will, some won't. That's why regulations work better. They require food companies to act responsibly across the board."

Your first link is about New York City. Obamacare instituted the carolie labeling, and the reason its not at places w/ less than 20 locations is that it would be a burden for any small business to accurately include calorie information. Nice try though.

My first link was about NYC because that was where restaurant calorie labeling began in the US. The linked article makes clear that NYC's initial focus was on fast-food restaurants, which was my point.

Obamacare instituted restaurant calorie labeling at the federal level, which is stated clearly in the second article I linked. In the second linked article, a professor opines on whether the federal rules will be effective based on studies that were done in NYC.

Both articles refer to the potential burden on small businesses. I do not think concern for burdens on small businesses is incompatible with elitism.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:20 AM on March 16, 2015


Based on the article, I feel like much of the research is either not that interesting, potentially exaggerated or just not represented well. I mean, if diners in America using chopsticks eat less, is that because they are eating slower because they are not that good at chopsticks? Or are the kind of people who choose to use chopsticks also likely to eat less? It seems like a lot of these observations are not very meaningful. Stuff like being 80% more likely to eat desert based on where you are sitting seems pretty suspect to me. From the article it's not very clear that he's doing something I would consider to be science, and it's not clear that one could draw any useful conclusions from his observations.

I'm beginning to suspect that this whole article is part of some other sociologist/psychologist's study to examine how different web-cultures react to reports of a study when the unrelated ideological preferences of the scientist involved get casually slipped into the paper.

One day we'll read about this in another FPP: "the largely left-liberal audience at Metafilter.com dismissed the scientist's findings out of hand, with no reference whatsoever to details of study design or methodology, simply on the basis of his largely undefined 'libertarian' political beliefs. These responses were curiously similar to those we found on Reason.com, when exactly the same article was released, but with a passing reference to his support for compulsory calorie counts and diet-soda bans..."
posted by yoink at 10:25 AM on March 16, 2015 [8 favorites]


Who dismissed these findings out of hand?

"the largely left-liberal audience at Metafilter.com dismissed the scientist's findings out of hand, with no reference whatsoever to details of study design or methodology,

That would be true if it wasn't bullshit:

I do wonder how many of this guy's gazillionbillion studies actually produce replicable results. Psychology has a huge replication problem and it's irresponsible at this point to report these 'One weird trick! Use chopsticks!' studies like they definitely indicate truth without further investigation. Unfortunately, the kind of industry-funded papermill that this guy seems to run is inherently biased towards producing badly-designed, underpowered research in the first instance, before you even start to talk about painstaking attempts to replicate at scale and in a range of environments.
posted by Acheman at 9:37 AM on March 16 [7 favorites +] [!]


From the Mother Jones article:
"Pick red wine instead of white (subjects who did so poured 9 percent less)"

From Wansink's paper:

" wine drinkerstypically poured 3.95 fl. oz. of wine into a standard
baseline (10 fl. oz.) glass, they poured 11.9% more into
a wider glass, 9.2% more when the wine was white"

Those aren't equivalent.

Also, in the study, they had 73 individuals and 504 different pours, but they were measuring so many variables and possible combinations (over 300) that they had to vary multiple conditions at the same time. Is this SOP in pyschology?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:41 AM on March 16 [3 favorites +] [!]

posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:31 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


I would also say that the political views of a scientist are probably much more central to discussion when their work seems so vulnerable to bias.

I would have thought--based on libertarians I know and libertarian opinion pieces I read online--that a libertarian would actually be biased towards thinking that people's conscious actions were more important than not. Libertarians tend to stress individual choice and our individual ability to choose rationally between a variety of options.

Who dismissed these findings out of hand?


The vast majority of those commenting on them. The fact that one or two bothered to actually look at the papers to find a nit to pick doesn't magically confer rigor on those (again, the majority, who are simply saying "I don't buy this kind of thing") who did not.
posted by yoink at 10:36 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


For lots of fancy restaurant dishes I'm sure the margin of error would be a fudge factor of half a stick of butter or more.

Very much so. To say nothing of the pretty intense burden it would put on any independent restaurant that wants to run specials/has an evolving menu.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:40 AM on March 16, 2015


I don't know why we have to argue about his politics. This seems reason enough to hate him:

Wansink is not overweight in the slightest, nor is he remarkably fit. He exercises on occasion and tries "not to eat anything too awful," but he doesn't diet.
posted by JanetLand at 10:42 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


to find a nit to pick

And, yes, the fact that the Mother Jones reporter mistakenly said that those who poured white rather than red poured "9% less" when Wansink's study showed, rather, that those who poured red rather than white poured "9.25 more" is about the nittiest nit it would be possible to pick--and it's a nit you're picking with the reporter, not with Wansink.
posted by yoink at 10:42 AM on March 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


The portion sizing thing is empirically known by any chef who has fucked up a buffet. People eat more at buffets than they do with plated meals. Controlling that via plate sizing and pre-portioning is a dark art. Buffets are terribly, terribly wasteful.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:45 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, I'm not criticizing his published research findings nor his libertarian politics, I'm criticizing his "healthy eating advice" as profiled in this article based on the things he said in this article.
posted by desuetude at 10:46 AM on March 16, 2015


What about my comment that he did not isolate changes in treatment? Why are you nit picking yourself?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:47 AM on March 16, 2015


I can't speak for anyone else, but I didn't find his insights that interesting and the way they described his work seemed suspect to me. It could be that it is just a poorly-written article.

Obviously, yes, if you want to lose weight, don't walk around with a box of cereal in your hand. If you want to learn about eating behavior, sit at a Chinese restaurant and make notes about what fat-looking people are doing versus skinny people. You also need to know exactly how to influence your subconscious: driving to work in a way that doesn't pass a 7-11 could never work, forcing yourself to get brain freeze will obviously do the trick.

His belief that solutions must come in the form of changes that are profitable to private businesses does seem like something that could influence his work, although I would be inclined to say the same for someone who believed that change could only come from government intervention. If he can't talk about his work without talking about his ideology, I don't think it makes sense for me to ignore it.

Probably people seated in very arid climates are more likely to eat desert than those seated in rainforests, but that was my mistake.
posted by snofoam at 10:48 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


This seems reason enough to hate him:

Wansink is not overweight in the slightest, nor is he remarkably fit. He exercises on occasion and tries "not to eat anything too awful," but he doesn't diet.
Why?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:50 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm going to backtrack on the libertarian thing. Libertarianism is basically the dumbest of all ideologies that are supposedly based on reason. Being a libertarian basically means you ignore or misunderstand most of what is around you in order to consistently draw the wrong conclusions. For me, personally, being a libertarian is a good reason for me to believe none of what a person thinks or says.

This also may drive the underlying inconsistencies in the article (more expensive than taco bell being elitist, more expensive mini-packs of crackers being awesome, etc.).
posted by snofoam at 11:01 AM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


Why?

'Cause jealousy, I think. It's a joke.
posted by snofoam at 11:06 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


For me, personally, being a libertarian is a good reason for me to believe none of what a person thinks or says.

Yes, the logical thing to do when shown to be guilty of motivated skepticism is clearly to double down on it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:16 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


s about the nittiest nit it would be possible to pick--and it's a nit you're picking with the reporter, not with Wansink.

Good thing I said:

From the Mother Jones article:
"Pick red wine instead of white (subjects who did so poured 9 percent less)"

From Wansink's paper:

posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:18 AM on March 16, 2015


It's actually his central point, woven through a lot of the article, that not everyone does have a spare second to pause and think about whether you're full.

I think I found the people you must be talking about.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:30 AM on March 16, 2015


Yes, the logical thing to do when shown to be guilty of motivated skepticism is clearly to double down on it.

I think libertarianism is stupid. I am very skeptical when it is important enough to someone's identity to be a part of what would in theory be a totally unrelated article. This alone is enough for me to largely dismiss him and his work (which also, as described, sounds pretty iffy to me). If that makes me guilty, so be it. Lock me up and throw away the key. Also, cancel my parole hearings because I will show no remorse.
posted by snofoam at 11:35 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Seriously, this is all basic priming.

If you could have chosen a worse analogy, I don't know what it is. There was a huge fight over the replicability of priming just a few years ago. In fact, it was posted to the blue by your conversant, MisantropicPainforest.
posted by pwnguin at 11:44 AM on March 16, 2015


To say nothing of the pretty intense burden it would put on any independent restaurant that wants to run specials/has an evolving menu.

Millions of people, not even trained cooks, count the calories in their recipes every day. It's not rocket science.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:50 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's not rocket science. And it's also more tricky to be accurate than you'd think--and such a scheme would have to be accurate or it would be useless. When chef is going "fuck, we need to use up [product], come up with something" and service is half an hour away, you really don't have time to stop and measure carefully and do calculations that would have any relationship to reality.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:54 AM on March 16, 2015


It takes reading a label and basic addition. It's completely histrionic to call it some sort of major burden.

/yes, has worked in kitchens.
posted by Drinky Die at 11:57 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Millions of people, not even trained cooks, count the calories in their recipes every day.

Do they do so accurately? No.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:58 AM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


The regulation allows restaurants to account for variations in a few different ways:

(1) providing an average or range, for each size or price of the variable menu item accompanied by the term “Avg. Cal”;
(2) declaring calories for the flavors, components, or toppings that make up that variable menu item elsewhere on the primary writing; or
(3) displaying the calorie amount for one preset “build” of the variable menu item.

posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:59 AM on March 16, 2015


Do they do so accurately?

Many do, many don't.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:00 PM on March 16, 2015


It's not rocket science.

Of course not. But that doesn't mean that there is an effective way to legislate that this information is presented on menus in a form that is consistent and accurate enough to be useful without being a significant burden on small restaurants with changing menus and in a way that can be enforced fairly. How accurate would the law require? Within 100 calories or 10% of what is listed? Would an agency test plates for accuracy? Wouldn't it be natural to assume that the cost of implementing a program for a million dishes that may only be served a dozen times would potentially be astronomical compared to doing so for dishes that are served thousands or millions of times? The difficulty of implementation doesn't have anything to do with the difficulty of ballparking the calories of an individual dish.
posted by snofoam at 12:02 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


It takes reading a label and basic addition. It's completely histrionic to call it some sort of major burden.

Or because chef has just dropped five pounds of kalette on your station with the dining room opening in twenty minutes it requires somehow finding its nutritional information somewhere, doing the math, while simultaneously working out how to compose and plate a new dish... you've worked in kitchens, you should realize that you're handwaving a lot of problems aside. Time being the major one. Accuracy being the other.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:04 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


A lot of different kind of people call themselves libertarian. Some are idiots. (Some who call themselves progressives are idiots too.) Some of them do so because they worry about regulatory capture by the industries that they regulate, which seems like kind of a smart reason to worry about regulation.

Libertarians have been criticizing the farm lobby that created the high fructose corn syrup problem for a generation. Libertarians are the ones that pointed out the problem with the sugar subsidies. Libertarians are the ones that pointed out the problem with the FDA's anti-fat agenda. Libertarians are the ones worried about the meat industry's ability to prevent regulations or decrease subsidies that would damage their market share.

If you had to choose, of course "regulate" would be better than "subsidize." But they've always gone together in the food industry. The reason to worry about the "subsidize but regulate" approach is that the regulations are generally toothless while the subsidies are massive. So while there are a lot of things you should disagree with libertarians about, when it comes to food politics, they're generally on the same side as smart progressives.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:06 PM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


somehow finding its nutritional information somewhere,

OMG so hard!
posted by Drinky Die at 12:07 PM on March 16, 2015


How many kitchens have you worked in where chef was totally okay with people touching their dirty nasty germ-ridden phones on the line?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:08 PM on March 16, 2015


Of course not. But that doesn't mean that there is an effective way to legislate that this information is presented on menus in a form that is consistent and accurate enough to be useful without being a significant burden on small restaurants with changing menus and in a way that can be enforced fairly. How accurate would the law require?

I don't know if there is a way to legislate it, random checks and some reasonable ballpark allowance for variation is about the only thing I could think of that might have a chance. My point is that the variation is there for fast food too, the guy at Subway putting oil on the sandwich can massively change the calorie count with very small amounts. So, I'm skeptical of people who insist on it there but throw up their hands about it when it comes to professional chefs working on their own recipes. It is an elitist requirement. It's a burden on the fast food places for them to have to be upfront about the calories while other places can create a healthy perception.

I think chefs should provide calorie counts to the customers out of respect for them and out of pride in what they are doing. Some places may lie, but they can already lie to me about stuff like if the broth in the soup is vegetarian which concerns me a lot more than calories. It's just part of dining out, if you want a more accurate count you should prepare food yourself at home and use a scale.

How many kitchens have you worked in where chef was totally okay with people touching their dirty nasty germ-ridden phones on the line?

The chef can do it when the products are ordered, and would if calorie counting the menu was a priority. As much as you want to make this the most difficult endeavor in the history of human civilization, I repeat that it's stone cold simple.

Anyway, I've argued this as well as I can for better or worse so I'll leave it there.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:16 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


The chef can do it when the products are ordered, and would if calorie counting the menu was a priority

I think perhaps we've worked in very different restaurants. I've worked in a couple places where chef either did the shopping himself, wholesale, or where farmers (& other suppliers) would literally show up at the back door saying "hey, look what I've got for you."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:18 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


So while there are a lot of things you should disagree with libertarians about, when it comes to food politics, they're generally on the same side as smart progressives.

Generally-speaking, I think I would agree with most libertarians about some or many very specific things (even if they came to their view for some totally weird and wrong reason). I'm not as sure that there is a unified libertarian viewpoint on many issues (other political philosophies may be at least somewhat more likely to have some sort of consensus in theory or in practice).
posted by snofoam at 12:29 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


That's really all anyone asks! Universal discounting of the sort that people have practiced in this thread (and that you articulated so provocatively) basically can't be right, especially with very ideologically diverse groups. But I also think progressives have a lot more in common with libertarians than with Christian dominionists or Republicans or whatever. It makes me sad when I see people gunning for libertarians on issues that ought to be common cause.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:33 PM on March 16, 2015


It is an elitist requirement.

Or it has nothing to do with elitism and the rules are driven by what is practical and some guy selling hot dogs out of a cart also doesn't have to post calories for menu items. At least we do know for sure that it would be possible to do calorie estimates that are accurate to some degree, which may or may not be useful at all, even though we have no idea whether or how that could be put into some sort of legislation that would be practical.
posted by snofoam at 12:35 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


From the link: If we really want to eat better, Wansink explains, we have to trick our brains into making the right choices.

In my experience as a food-loving person, this works. It is so much easier to put the chips in the cabinet, rather than exercise restraint every time I walk in the kitchen and see the chips on the counter. It is so much better and more long-term effective to tell people to try these little behavior-modification tactics (like shopping for produce first), instead of shaming them into "just eating less." Building tiny positive habits is psychologically palatable; it gives people actionable information that doesn't start with making them feel like failures.

Sure, I'd probably disagree on many fronts with him politically and I wonder whether the alignment between his research findings and his politics could be stronger, but I think he's on to something. His approach seems realistic and motivated by effects, not by tiresome moralizing.

I just skimmed one of his 2014 papers about how size labels influence the amount of food actually consumed. It's not my field, but the research comes across as thoughtful and the data are pretty well-explored.

This concluding sentence from the 2014 paper (on which he is not first-author, admittedly) made me giggle:

With the tremendous increase in obesity experienced in the USA over the last decades, there may be a substantive role for government in creating an atmosphere where a casual (and noncognizant) consumer may be pointed toward healthier portions without removing individual choice and without restricting a firm’s ability to market whatever quantities they wish.
posted by nicodine at 12:52 PM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


Universal discounting of the sort that people have practiced in this thread (and that you articulated so provocatively) basically can't be right

I definitely agree with what you're saying, in a way. There surely are smart libertarians, and I've had many engaging conversations with libertarians and have agreed with them on many things. At the same time, I find libertarianism to be very kooky most of the time. As mentioned above, I am particularly liable to dismiss someone who is so libertarian they discuss it as part of something totally unrelated. If someone told me they had described 3,000 new species of wasp and then told me that individuals should be free to make scientific discoveries without being subject to the whims of the academic establishment I would also be skeptical.

At the end of the day, I think it actually kind of works out. The discounting only happens when someone introduces libertarianism when it is totally irrelevant. I don't discount when I have no idea someone is libertarian. It may not be right, but it might be a useful proxy.

I also become skeptical when someone tells me babies hatch from cans. When it's not relevant to the topic at hand.
posted by snofoam at 12:55 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


With the tremendous increase in obesity experienced in the USA over the last decades, there may be a substantive role for government in creating an atmosphere where a casual (and noncognizant) consumer may be pointed toward healthier portions without removing individual choice and without restricting a firm’s ability to market whatever quantities they wish.

I guess we all have our beliefs, but it is kind of interesting when someone is just throwin' it right in there. It a way it is better than trying to hide biases. Like, this team is clearly looking for the most effective way to improve health outcomes...while also satisfying three other criteria that are totally unrelated to health.
posted by snofoam at 1:10 PM on March 16, 2015


If you could have chosen a worse analogy, I don't know what it is. There was a huge fight over the replicability of priming just a few years ago. In fact, it was posted to the blue by your conversant, MisantropicPainforest.

I... apologize for not being intimately familiar with MisanthropicPainforest's positions re: priming as elucidated in a thread ten months before I joined the site?
posted by sciatrix at 1:12 PM on March 16, 2015


I... apologize for not being intimately familiar with MisanthropicPainforest's positions re: priming as elucidated in a thread ten months before I joined the site?

I'm not trying to guilt or criticize you about knowing the post's author. Rather, the point here is that the evidence for priming's existence itself is under dispute, in a classic "We think the authors of the article calling our life's work bullshit are themselves bullshit." If I could remember a more recent example, I would have gladly shared it.

But I did think that post was relevant to the conversation, and was surprised enough by the post's authorship to share it with the class as well.
posted by pwnguin at 4:31 PM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I know Brian and Jennifer (his wife's American name) from my time at Cornell, and I have to say they're both super nice people. Jennifer gave several cooking workshops in the hotel school's kitchen, and she's a super talented chef. Brian was always supportive of cooking education and our tiny cooking club.

The thing you have to understand about Brian Wansink is that first and foremost he's a marketing professor. His research and politics make a lot more sense in that light.

To understand what I mean by that, remember that the typical food marketer is always asking "how can I get more people to buy my product?" That could be by any number of ways - by changing the packaging, product size, price, coupons, flavor, etc. Brian's approach is to look at these same variables from the perspective of healthy eating.

Most marketers (and business people) have libertarian free market leanings. What always made Brian a little subversive compared to other business types is that he uses marketing techniques to encourage healthy eating rather than to grow revenue. What's even more interesting (and just as subversive) is that he's figured out how to align these marketing principles that encourage healthy eating with the marketing principles that help drive revenue.

As a marketer myself, I find a lot of the comments here utterly perplexing. Brian is anti- establishment compared to some of the people I know.
posted by fremen at 4:32 PM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think my issue, fremen, is that I believe that sometimes the goal of encouraging healthy eating is going to be at odds with the goal of maximizing profits. It's always going to be in a restaurant's best interest to encourage diners to buy a second glass of wine or a dessert, and it's not always in the customer's best interest to consume that stuff. If you view this totally from a market-driven point of view, what do you do when there really is more profit to be gained from encouraging people to make unhealthy choices? Unlike many libertarians, I do not believe that the free market is magic, and therefore I believe that we have to take into account the possibility that markets will fail to bring about socially desirable results in some cases.

And I say that as someone who is, in general, in favor of the kind of research that he does.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:55 PM on March 16, 2015


Thanks Fremen, that does make-sense-ify many things. His lab contributes to things like "the use of elaborate names and mouth-watering descriptions in many chain restaurant menus (to improve enjoyment of the food)." It really underscores how terrible the article is, and explains why his ideas are so unconventional when presented as him trying to help people rather than him trying to help companies while also helping people if it works out that way.

Also, to me, anti-establishment has basically been co-opted by the right. Progressives don't want to abolish the federal reserve, end taxation, abolish all regulations regarding firearms or drown the government in a bathtub. Long gone are the days when being fed up with "the system" was some sort of progressive rebellion.

Also, I have worked in marketing for most of my adult life and I don't think that worldview is necessarily pervasive. I think many of us are uncomfortably aware of how how awful the current state of American capitalism is.
posted by snofoam at 7:19 PM on March 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


Why make the assumption that helping companies does not equal helping people? Or rather, why not recognize that someone might decide that the best way to help people in certain areas can be most effectively done via corporations or brands? It's a tricky balance, because it must be sold as an idea to all stakeholders (consumers, companies, government) who all have similar-but-different goals but it can be shockingly effective if you get it right. And if he can move companies towards regularly making smaller portion sizes available through helping them attract customers with nicer names, then I say name away.

I'm far far far away from a libertarian, but since government efforts to assist with nutrition are too low down the priority tree to be effective, then I will stand up and give an ovation to the people who manage to convince corporations that good health is good business too.
posted by frumiousb at 8:51 PM on March 16, 2015


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