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.
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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.
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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