Downsizing Supersize

By Surowiecki, James | The New Yorker, August 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Downsizing Supersize


Surowiecki, James, The New Yorker


In an era of political polarization, Michael Bloomberg has the rare ability to come up with policies that enrage everyone. His latest pet project--banning large sodas, as a way of fighting obesity in New York--has been ridiculed by both Jon Stewart and John Boehner. And a recent Board of Health hearing on the plan saw Democratic and Republican politicians alike lining up to attack the idea, which would prohibit restaurants, delis, sports arenas, movie theatres, and food carts from selling any soft drinks larger than sixteen ounces. Critics dismiss the ban as yet another expression of Bloomberg's nanny-state mentality and as a "feel-good placebo" that's doomed to fail. They're right that the ban is blatantly paternalist. But that doesn't mean it won't work.

It's true that the ban will be easy to circumvent: if you want to drink thirty-two ounces, you can just buy two sixteen-ounce servings. But Bloomberg's proposal makes clever use of what economists call "default bias." If you offer a choice in which one option is seen as a default, most people go for that default option. People who are automatically enrolled in a retirement plan, for instance, are more likely to stay with their original plan than those who choose plans for themselves. In countries where people have to choose to be an organ donor, most people aren't donors; in countries where people have to actively say they don't want to be an organ donor, most are donors. The soda ban makes sixteen ounces or less the default option for soda drinkers; if they want more, they'll have to make an extra effort.

An executive at the American Beverage Association has dismissed the plan, saying that "150 years of research finds that people consume what they want." Actually, the research shows that what people "want" has a lot to do with how choices are framed. In one well-known study, researchers put a bowl of M&M's on the concierge desk of an apartment building, with a scoop attached and a sign below that said "Eat Your Fill." On alternating days, the experimenters changed the size of the scoop--from a tablespoon to a quarter-cup scoop, which was four times as big. If people really ate just "what they want," the amount they ate should have remained roughly the same. But scoop size turned out to matter a lot: people consumed much more when the scoop was big. This suggests that most of us don't have a fixed idea of how much we want; instead, we look to outside cues--like the size of a package or cup--to instruct us. And since the nineteen-seventies the portion sizes offered by food companies and restaurants have grown significantly larger. In 1974, the biggest drink McDonald's offered was twenty-one ounces. …

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