Annals of Behavioral Medicine

, Volume 38, Supplement 1, pp 47–55

Obesity: Can Behavioral Economics Help?

Original Article

Abstract

Background

Consumers regularly and predictably behave in ways that contradict standard assumptions of economic analysis such that they make decisions that prevent them from reaching rationally intended goals. These contradictions play a significant role with respect to consumers’ food decisions and the effect these decisions have on their health.

Discussion

Food decisions that are rationally derived include those that trade short-term gains of sensory pleasure (hedonic) for longer term gains of health and wellness (utilitarian). However, extra-rational food decisions are much more common. They can occur because of the contexts in which they are made—such as being distracted or pressed for time. In these contexts, heuristics (or rules of thumb) are used. Because food decisions are made with little cognitive involvement, food policies designed to appeal to highly cognitive thought (e.g., fat taxes, detailed information labels) are likely to have little impact. Furthermore, food marketing environments influence not only what foods consumers buy but also how much. As a general principle, when individuals do not behave in their own interest, markets will feed perverse and sub-optimal behaviors.

Conclusion

Given the limited ability of individuals to retain and use accurate health information coupled with varying levels of self control, profit motivations of marketers can become predatory—though not necessarily malicious. Alternative policy options that do not restrict choice are outlined, which enable consumers to make better decisions. These options allow for profit motivations of marketers to align with the long-term well being of the consumer.

Keywords

Behavioral economics Food policy Food psychology Obesity Consumption decisions 

References

  1. 1.
    World Health Organization. Obesity and overweight. Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/index.html/. Accessibility verified November 12, 2008.
  2. 2.
    International Obesity Taskforce. International Obesity Taskforce prevalence data. Available at: http://www.iotf.org/database/index.asp/. Accessibility verified November 12, 2008.
  3. 3.
    Wang Y, Beydoun MA, Liang L, Caballero B, Kumanyika SK. Will all Americans become overweight or obese? Estimating the progression and cost of the US obesity epidemic. Obesity. 2008; 16: 2323-2330.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    McCarthy M. The economics of obesity. Lancet. 2004; 364: 2169-2170.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Curtin LR, McDowell MA, Tabak CJ, Flegal KM. Prevalence of overweight and obesity in the United States, 1999–2004. J Am Med Assoc. 2006; 13: 1549-1555.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Hartman RS, Doane MJ, Woo CK. Consumer rationality and the status quo. Q J Econ. 1991; 106: 141-162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Pan SY, DesMeules M, Morrison H, Wen SW. Obesity, high energy intake, lack of physical activity, and the risk of kidney cancer. Cancer Epidemiol Biomark Prev. 2006; 15: 2453-2460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Wansink B, Payne CR. The joy of cooking too much: 70 years of calorie increase in classic recipies. Ann Intern Med. 2009; 150: 291-292.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Wang Y, Beydoun BA. The obesity epidemic in the United States—Gender, age, socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and geographic characteristics: A systematic review and meta-regression analysis. Epidemiol Rev. 2007; 29: 6-28.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    Drewnowski A. The real contribution of added sugars and fats to obesity. Epidemiol Rev. 2007; 29: 160-171.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Drewnowski A, Specter SE. Poverty and obesity: The role of energy density and energy costs. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004; 79: 6-16.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Baker EA, Schootman M, Barnidge E, Kelly C. The role of race and poverty in access to foods that enable individuals to adhere to dietary guidelines. Preventing Chronic Disease [serial online] 2006. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2006/jul/05_0217.htm.
  13. 13.
    Frank LD, Andresen MA, Schmid TL. Obesity relationships with community design, physical activity, and time spent in cars. Am J Prev Med. 2004; 27: 87-96.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Hill JO, Wyatt HR, Reed GW, Peters JC. Obesity and the environment: Where do we go from here? Science. 2003; 299: 853.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Wansink B. Mindless Eating. New York: Bantam; 2007.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Regmi A, Deepak MS, Seale JL, Bernstein J. Cross-country analysis of food consumption patterns. In Regmi A. (ed.) Changing Structure of Global Food Consumption and Trade. Agriculture and Trade Report, WRS-01-1. US Department of Agriculture, Washington, May 2001, pp. 14–22.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Bonnet CP, DuBois, Orozco V. Food Consumption and Obesity in France. Working Paper, Toulouse School of Economics, March 2008.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Kuchler F, Tegene A, Harris M. Taxing snack foods: Manipulation of diet quality or financing information programs. Rev Agric Econ. 2005; 27: 4-20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Kinsey J, Bowland B. How can the US food system deliver food products consistent with dietary guidelines? Food marketing and retailing an economist’s view. Food Policy. 1999; 24: 237-253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Lipsky L. The Economics of Obesity: Dietary Energy Density and Energy Cost. Paper presented at the Seminar in Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, November 4, 2008.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Haavelmo T. The statistical implications of a system of simultaneous equations. Econometrica. 1943; 11: 1-12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Gourville JT, Soman D. Payment depreciation: The behavioral effects of temporarily separating payments from consumption. J Consum Res. 1998; 25: 160-174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    Thaler RH. Mental accounting and consumer choice. Mark Sci. 1985; 4: 199-214.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Dickson PR, Sawyer AG. The price knowledge and search of supermarket shoppers. J Mark. 1990; 54: 42-53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Thaler RH. Mental accounting matters. In: Camerer CF, Loewenstein G, Rabin M, eds. Advances in Behavioral Economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2004: 75-103.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Brown DJ, Schrader LF. Cholesterol information and shell egg consumption. A J Agric Econ. 1990; 72: 548-555.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Fulmer S, Geiger CJ, Parent CRM. Consumers’ knowledge, understanding, and attitudes toward health claims on food labels. J Am Diet Assoc. 1991; 91: 166-171.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Asp EH. Factors affecting food decisions made by individual consumers. Food Policy. 1999; 24: 287-294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Nestle M. Food politics. Keynote Address, American Agricultural Economics Association Annual Meetings, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, August 2003.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Wansink B. How do front and back package labels influence beliefs about health claims? J Consum Aff. 2003; 37: 305-316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 31.
    Chandon P, Wansink B. The biasing health halos of fast-food restaurant health claims: Lower calorie estimates and higher side-dish consumption intentions. J Consum Res. 2007; 34: 301-314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 32.
    Klein S. Does paying for obesity therapy make cents? Gastroenterology. 2005; 128: 530.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. 33.
    Kozegi B, Rabin M. Revealed mistakes and revealed preferences. Working Paper Department of Economics. University of California, Berkeley; 2007Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Bernheim BD, Rangel A. Beyond Revealed Preference: Choice theoretic foundations for behavioral welfare economics. Working Paper 13737, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge MA; 2008Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Thaler RH, Sunstein CA. Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press; 2008.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Thaler RH, Sunstein CA. Libertarian Paternalism. Am Econ Rev. 2003; 93: 175-179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 37.
    Choi JJ, Laibson D, Madarian BC. Metrick A. For better or for worse: Default effects and 401(k) savings behavior. In: Wise DA, ed. Perspectives on the Economics of Aging. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2004: 81-126.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Wansink B. Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annu Rev Nutr. 2004; 24: 455-479.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. 39.
    Wansink B, Payne CR, Chandon P. Internal and external cues of meal cessation: The French Paradox redux? Obesity. 2007; 15: 1957-1960.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 40.
    Simonson I. The effect of purchase quantity and timing on variety-seeking behavior. J Mark Res. 1990; 27: 150-162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    de Castro JM. Eating behavior: Lessons from the real world of humans. Nutrition. 2000; 16: 800-813.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Cabanac M, Bonniot-Cabanac M-C. Decision making: Rational or hedonic? Behav Brain Funct. 2007; 3: 45-52.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    Wise RA. Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2004; 5: 1-12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. 44.
    Wansink B. Can package size accelerate usage volume? J Mark. 1996; 60: 1-14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 45.
    Wansink B, Kim JK. Bad popcorn in big buckets: Portion size can influence intake as much as taste. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2005; 37: 242-245.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. 46.
    Wansink B, van Ittersum K, Painter JE. Ice cream illusions: Bowls, spoons, and self-served portion sizes. Am J Prev Med. 2006; 31: 240-243.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Hill JO, Wyatt HR, Reed GW, Peters JC. Obesity and the environment: Where do we go from here? Science. 2003; 299: 853-855.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. 48.
    Thaler RH. Toward a positive theory of consumer choice. J Econ Behav Organ. 1980; 1: 39-60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 49.
    Just DR, Wansink, B. The fixed price paradox: Conflicting effects of “all-you-can-eat” pricing. (Working Manuscript).Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Just DR, Mancino L, Wansink B. Could behavioral economics help improve diet quality for nutrition assistance program participants? Report # 43, US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service; 1999.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Hirschman EC. Differences in Consumer Purchase Behavior by Credit Card Payment System. J Consum Res. 1979; 6: 58-66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    Prelec D, Loewenstein GL. The red and the black: Mental accounting of savings and debt. Mark Sci. 1998; 17: 4-28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. 53.
    McClure SM, Laibson D, Loewenstein GL, Cohen JD. Separate neural systems value immediate and delayed monetary rewards. Science. 2004; 306: 503-507.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. 54.
    Wansink B, Just DR, Payne CR. Constrained volition and healthier school lunches. (Working Manuscript).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Society of Behavioral Medicine 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Applied Economics and ManagementCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.Marketing DepartmentNew Mexico State UniversityLas CrucesUSA

Personalised recommendations