At the conclusion of 2017, to the dismay of journalists, pundits, and academics, large numbers of adolescents began consuming Tide Pods, a form of laundry detergent that is candy-like in appearance. This paper argues that purposeful consumption of laundry detergent may in fact be individually rational for adolescents. The consumption of Tide Pods may allow adolescents to successfully signal status in accordance with the Handicap Principle, which explains the beauty of a peacock’s tail and the practice of stotting by gazelles in the wild. The Handicap Principle is also a common explanation of adolescents’ willingness to engage in dangerous activities, like drug use. A subtext of the thesis of this paper is the veracity of rational choice explanations in unconventional contexts distant from its original applications.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
The “preferences” of the genes in this context may remain constant, however, with the changes in preferences of the economic actor driven by psychological responses to changes in relative costs in the environment.
Of lesser relevance here is a philosopher puzzle by Kavka (1983) related to the rationality of poison consumption.
For an exposition of a very similar theory, that low socioeconomic status creates a cue for individuals to engage in risky behavior, can be found in Griskevicius et al. (2011). As long as the link between status seeking and risk remains, the arguments in this paper remain the same. The other exposition of the mechanism was emphasized because it appears to be more predominant in the literature.
I should note that experimental evidence using mating priming has failed to replicate (Shanks et al. 2015), but this is one small piece of a core concept within the field of evolutionary psychology.
Murphy (2016) argues that it is possible to interpret some forms of status seeking as irrational should there arise a disconnect between what people believe they are doing and what is ultimately status seeking behavior. In those examples forms of status seeking took on a veneer of morality. This disconnect may also arise in the Ice Bucket Challenge. It does not seem to be in play in explaining the Tide Pod Challenge.
There are some very small additional benefits that I have not mentioned, such as serving the function of sorting partners. However, this may not be a social good, as assortive mating is one cause of income inequality (Greenwood et al. 2014). Social benefits accrued are likely smaller than they are in education, for one example, which has received lengthy criticism elsewhere for imposing deadweight loss via a similar mechanism (Caplan 2018). There is a more speculative benefit to the Tide Pod Challenge, which is that it may on net reduce laundry detergent capsule poisonings. Despite a galling 215 cases of teens being hospitalized for consuming Tide Pods in the first 4 months of 2018, the overall pattern is a reduction in the number of children facing such treatment. It may be that the ironic outcome of the Tide Pod Challenge has been to raise awareness and actually create greater net social benefits than the Ice Bucket Challenge (which has received some criticism, see Belluz 2014). Somewhat less provocatively, Collins et al. (2015) argue that conspicuous consumption played a role in developing modern rates of economic growth.
See Boardman et al. (2006: 411) for a straightforward distillation of the results.
This estimate is $1.47 million, which the authors find after adjusting for publication bias.
In saying this, the model I have in mind is the Tide Pod Challenge as a “rite of passage” pooling equilibrium, as opposed to something done with any frequency.
Abad-Santos, A. (2018). Why people are (mostly) joking about eating Tide Pods. Vox, https://www.vox.com/2018/1/4/16841674/tide-pods-eating-meme-tide-pod-challenge
Alchian, A. (1950). Uncertainty, evolution, and economic theory. Journal of Political Economy, 58(3), 211–221.
American Association of Poison Control Centers. (2018a). Laundry detergent packets (unit dose liquid) data. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from https://aapcc.s3.amazonaws.com/files/library/Laundry_Pack_Web_Data_through_3.2018.pdf.
American Association of Poison Control Centers. (2018b). Intentional exposures among teens to single-load laundry packets. Retrieved October 4, 2018, from http://www.aapcc.org/alerts/intentional-exposures-among-teens-single-load-laun/. This page was deleted but has been archived: https://web.archive.org/web/20180430235815/, http://www.aapcc.org/alerts/intentional-exposures-among-teens-single-load-laun/
Baker Jr, M. D., & Maner, J. K. (2008). Risk-taking as a situationally sensitive male mating strategy. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 391–395.
Baker Jr, M. D., & Maner, J. K. (2009). Male risk-taking as a context-sensitive signaling device. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(5), 1136–1139.
Basso, F., Robert-Demontrond, P., Hayek, M., Anton, J.-L., Nazarian, B., Roth, M., & Oullier, O. (2014). Why people drink shampoo? Food imitating products are fooling brains and endangering consumers for marketing purposes. PLoS ONE, 9(9), 1–17.
Becker, G. (1962). Irrational behavior and economic theory. Journal of Political Economy, 70(1), 1–13.
Becker, G., & Murphy, K. (1988). A theory of rational addiction. Journal of Political Economy, 96(4), 675–700.
Belluz, J. (2014). The truth about the ice bucket challenge: Viral memes shouldn’t dictate our charitable giving. Vox, https://www.vox.com/2014/8/20/6040435/als-ice-bucket-challenge-and-why-we-give-to-charity-donate
Bever, L. (2018). Teens are daring each other to eat Tide Pods. We don’t need to tell you that’s a bad idea. The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/01/13/teens-are-daring-each-other-to-eat-tide-pods-we-dont-need-to-tell-you-thats-a-bad-idea/?utm_term=.7dae3d8c8955
Boardman, A. E., Greenberg, D. H., Vining, A. R., & Weimer, D. L. (2006). Cost-benefit analysis: Concepts and practice (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Borkowska, B., & Pawlowski, B. (2014). Recreational drug use and fluctuating asymmetry: Testing the handicap principle. Evolutionary Psychology, 12(4), 769–782.
Byrnes, J. P., Miller, D. C., & Schafer, W. D. (1999). Gender differences in risk taking: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125(3), 367–383.
Caplan, Bryan. (2018). The case against education: Why the education system is a waste of time and money. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Collins, J. (2017). Rationalizing the ‘irrational’. Behavioral Scientist, http://behavioralscientist.org/rationalizing-the-irrational/
Collins, J., Baer, B., & Weber, E. J. (2015). Sexual selection, conspicuous consumption and economic growth. Journal of Bioeconomics, 17(2), 186–209.
Consumer Reports News. (2013). As poisoning cases rise, a call for safer laundry pod packaging. https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2013/03/as-poisoning-cases-rise-a-call-for-safer-laundry-pod-packaging/index.htm
Dahir, I. (2018). Let’s kick of 2018 with a warning from tide not to eat its laundry pacs. Buzzfeed, https://www.buzzfeed.com/ikrd/the-tide-pods-wont-get-you-high?utm_term=.vuZk6ZxeAK#.uvV1Q3KBgY
De Fraja, G. (2009). The origins of utility: Sexual selection and conspicuous consumption. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 72(1), 51–69.
Diamond, Jared. (1992). The third chimpanzee: The evolution and future of the human animal. New York: HarperCollins.
Durrant, Russell, Adamson, Simon, Todd, Fraser, & Selmman, Doug. (2009). Drug use and addiction: Evolutionary perspective. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 43(11), 1049–1056.
Farthing, G. William. (2005). Attitudes toward heroic and nonheroic physical risk takers as mates and as friends. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26(2), 171–185.
Frank, R. H. (2005). Departures from rational choice: With and without regret. In Francesco Parisi & Vernon L. Smith (Eds.), The law and economics of irrational behavior. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Frank, R. H. (2018). Why even tougher smoking regulations are justified. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/business/economy/why-even-tougher-regulations-on-smoking-are-justified.html
Grant-Alfieri, A., Schaechter, J., & Lipshultz, S. E. (2013). Ingesting and aspirating dry cinnamon by children and adolescents: the ‘cinnamon challenge’. Pediatrics, 131(5), 833–835.
Greenwood, J., Guner, N., Kocharkov, G., & Santos, C. (2014). Marry your like: Assortive mating and income inequality. American Economic Review, 105(4), 348–353.
Greitemeyer, T., Kastemuller, A., & Fischer, P. (2013). Romantic motives and risk-taking: An evolutionary approach. Journal of Risk Research, 16(1), 19–38.
Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J. M., Delton, A. W., & Robertson, T. E. (2011). The theory of mortality and socioeconomic status on risk and delayed rewards: A life history theory approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(6), 1015–1026.
Gstalater, M. (2018). YouTube removing videos of people eating Tide Pods. The Hill, http://thehill.com/policy/technology/369531-youtube-facebook-removing-videos-of-people-eating-tide-pods
Hagen, E. H., Roulette, C. J., & Sullivan, R. J. (2013). Explaining human recreational use of ‘pesticides’: The neurotoxin regulation model of substance use vs. the hijack model and implications for age and sex differences in drug consumption. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4(Article 142), 1–21.
Hoffer, S., Beradino, F., Smith, J., & Rubin, S. (1998). Economic values for evaluation of FAA investment and regulatory decisions. Washington, DC: Federal Aviation Administration.
Huntington, S., Heppner, J., Vohra, R., Mallois, R., & Geller, R. J. (2014). Serious adverse effects from single-use detergent sacs: Report from a U.S. Statewide Poison Control System. Clinical Toxicology, 52, 220–225.
Ioannidis, J. P. A., Stanley, T. D., & Doucouliagos, H. (2017). The power of bias in economics research. The Economic Journal, 127(605), F236–F265.
Karel, L. I., Handzel, M. C., & Rosini, J. M. (2015). Laundry detergent pod ingestion in 2 pediatric patients. Journal of Emergency Nursing, 41(1), 80–82.
Kavka, G. S. (1983). The toxin puzzle. Analysis, 43(1), 33–36.
Kelly, S., & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2001). Who dares, wins. Human Nature, 12(2), 89–105.
Kenrick, D. T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013). The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. New York: Basic Books.
KnowYourMeme. (2018). Tide POD challenge.” http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/tide-pod-challenge
Leeson, P. T. (2012). Ordeals. Journal of Law and Economics, 55(3), 691–714.
Leeson, P. T. (2017). WTF?! An economic tour of the weird. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Leeson, P. T., & Coyne, C. J. (2012). Sassywood. Journal of Comparative Economics, 40, 608–620.
Levitt, S. D., & Venkatesh, S. A. (2000). An economic analysis of a drug-selling gang’s finances. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(3), 755–789.
Murphy, R. H. (2016). The willingness-to-pay for caplanian irrationality. Rationality and Society, 28(1), 52–82.
Popper, K. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. London: Hutchinson Co.
Redford, A. (2017). Don’t eat the brown acid: Induced ‘malnovation’ in drug markets. Review of Austrian Economics, 30(2), 215–233.
Ridley, M. (1996). The origins of virtue: human instincts and the evolution of cooperation. New York: Penguin.
Ronay, R., & von Hippel, W. (2010). The presence of an attractive woman elevates testosterone and physical risk taking in young men. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(1), 57–64.
Rubin, P. (2003). Folk economics. Southern Economic Journal, 70(1), 157–171.
Rubin, P., & Paul, C. W. (1979). An evolutionary model of taste for risk. Economic Inquiry, 17(4), 585–596.
Shanks, D. R., Vadillo, M. A., Riedel, B., Clymo, A., Govind, S., Hickin, N., Tamman, A. J. F., & Puhlmann, L. M. C. (2015). Romance, risk, and replication: can consumer choices and risk-taking be primed by mating motives? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(6), e142–e158.
Sjogren, P. P., Skarda, D. E., & Park, A. H. (2016). Upper aerodigestive injuries from detergent ingestion in children. The Laryngoscope, 127(February), 509–512.
Smith, E., Liebelt, E., & Nogueira, J. (2014). Laundry detergent pod ingestions: Is there a need for endoscopy? Journal of Medical Toxicology, 10(3), 286–291.
Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Development Review, 28(1), 78–106.
Stigler, G., & Becker, G. (1977). De gustibus non est disputandum. American Economic Review, 67(2), 76–90.
Stromberg, P. E., Burt, M. H., Rose, S. R., Cumpston, K. L., Emswiler, M. P., & Wills, B. K. (2015). Airway compromise in children exposed to single-use laundry detergent pods: A poison center observational case series. American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 33, 349–351.
Sundie, J. M., Kenrick, D. T., Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J. M., Vohs, K. D., & Beal, D. J. (2010). Peacocks, porsches, and thorstein veblen: Conspicuous consumption as a sexual signaling system. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 664–680.
Tullock, G. (1962). The welfare costs of tariffs, monopolies, and theft. Economic Inquiry, 5(2), 224–232.
Valdez, A. L., Casavant, M. J., Spiller, H. A., Chounthirath, T., Xiang, H., & Smith, G. A. (2014). Pediatric exposure to laundry pods. Pediatrics, 134(6), 1127–1135.
Veblen, T. (1899). The theory of the leisure class. Abingdon: Macmillan.
Vincke, E. (2017). The deep rationality of dark consumption: Alcohol and cigarette use as sexual signaling. Dissertation, Ghent University.
von Mises, L. (1949). Human action. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Wilke, A., Hutchinson, J. M. C., Todd, P. M., & Kruger, D. J. (2006). Is risk taking used as a cue in mate choice? Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 367–393.
Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (1985). Competitiveness, risk taking, and violence: The young male syndrome. Ethology and Sociobiology, 6(1), 59–73.
Yin, S., Behrman, A., & Colvin, J. (2015). Laundry pack exposures in children 0-5 years evaluated at a single pediatric institution. The Journal of Emergency Medicine, 48(5), 566–572.
Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection—A selection for handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53(1), 205–214.
Zahavi, A., & Zahavi, A. (1997). The handicap principle: A missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Murphy, R.H. The rationality of literal Tide Pod consumption. J Bioecon 21, 111–122 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10818-019-09285-1
- Tide Pods
- Veblen good
- Conspicuous consumption
- Handicap principle