Food: Getting lost in social constructivism

After reading both the Stuff article and the initial article on Gareth Morgan’s blog and the follow up, I am convinced both Gareth and Geoff Simmons (GG) have inadvertently become extreme social constructivists – but may not realise it yet.

Now I hate it when people just whip out rhetoric like “social constructivist” and don’t explain it – so what do I mean, how have they gone this way, and what do we know about this type of framework so we can analyse it?

Social constructivism

I like to get definitions off Wikipedia, and in this case this does a good job of articulating how I understand the concept:

Social constructivism is a sociological theory of knowledge that applies the general philosophical constructivism into social settings, wherein groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings. When one is immersed within a culture of this sort, one is learning all the time about how to be a part of that culture on many levels. It is emphasised that culture plays a large role in the cognitive development of a person.

In combination with the economic framework that is used, both here and by GG, with their views on the unconscious mind have led to a situation where they increasingly use the word “trick” to mean “set our preferences.

As a result, it has become increasingly clear that whenever GG says the “food industry is tricking us”, it is just a rhetorical device for expressing the term “the food industry is setting our preferences in a way that we disagree with/believe is bad for the individual”.

Social constructivism does have a nugget of truth, and in the formative years of childhood there are important elements too it.  However, there are two key concerns:

  1. It becomes purely deterministic, especially in conjunction with a deterministic view of choice, thereby absolving the individual of responsibility from their own actions.
  2. By its nature there are “multiple equilibrium” with no clear definition of value – therefore it is a framework that appeals to utopians (and dystopians) who simply want to pick an outcome and demand we do what we can to get there.

Althought GG accuse others of extremism around choice – this rings hollow when their own framework is pure extremism.  If you don’t eat in a way that GG feel is appropriate it is not a choice, it is because someone else is forcing you.  By using a purely constructivist framework, they absolve themselves of facing the value judgement that people may have a preference for the unhealthy – and may trade that off to consume something they enjoy.  They allow themselves to target obesity as an outcome by making it external to the individual, when such a view is fundamentally insulting about the individuals capability to make choices.

Social constructivism is very popular with people who have an outcome they want to target, and want to ex-post motivate it.  This type of output focus, combined with a downplaying of individual agency, is the antithesis of the way I view economics – which is why I can’t help but write something 😉

Where do you “disagree”

First let me state down where our frameworks meet.  Advertising to and information for kids does matter.  We build up a stock of habits, rules of thumb, and physical attributes as children which have a fundamental impact on the type of life available to us as adults – and we are ill equipped to make choices for ourselves.  In that case we do need to think about these types of issues.

But the point is that we are building up a stock of habits, rules of thumb, and physical attributes here – and it is through the active choices of adults.  Even in an “ideal” childhood where a masterful adult unaffected by advertising “creates” us as our own “perfect adult”, our preferences will differ.  As we just inherently like different things.  In such a place, we will still enjoy things.

When I was young we rarely had chocolate, and I wasn’t allowed coffee.  However, when I was an adult I loved chocolate (over it now) and caffeine drinks (still do).  No doubt these things aren’t good for me, and GG would gladly tell me so I’m sure, but I know this and want to do it anyway.

They reach far too far in trying to say that deviations from their ideal are due to promotions like toys in supermarkets.

This doesn’t answer the idea of toys in supermarkets though

For this, let me go to an old post of mine.

So food with a McDonalds wrapper does taste better. Now I’m sure many people will take this as a sign that advertising is evil, as it can lead to children being overweight, however I think it is an awesome service provided by McDonalds. You see McDonalds advertising makes food taste better, they increase the value of the product to an individual by advertising it, and getting all your senses excited. Although two otherwise identical products might seem homogeneous to you, the fact that the McDonalds wrapper is on one and not the other implies that one has the value associated with advertising while one doesn’t. As all McDonalds is doing is increasing the value of their product, thereby increasing demand I don’t have a problem with it.

However, there may be a role for government intervention yet. If McDonalds is an addictive good, and the consumer had no a priori knowledge that it was addictive, then the increase in future consumption (and the associated negative effects) of McDonalds is not taken into account when the person purchases a product. By advertising, they can increase demand and make more people fast food addicts. Now to do not know the degree with which fast food is addictive. However, government regulation, such as education or limits on advertising could be useful.

What is the advertising doing?  Is it increasing the subjective pleasure associated with the experience?  Is it misleading (making ex ante expectations and the realisation different) or creating a cost for other choices?  The difference matters if we actually respect individuals enough to accept they have some agency over their own choices.

In the case where we give little kids a toy of a milk bottle, a carrot, or a chocolate bar at the supermarket we are undeniably normalising “shopping at the supermarket”.  But in this instance it is hard to see how it will have much to do with anything about the kids stock of habits or rules of thumb growing up – apart from recognising certain brands above others.

Turning around and criticising the promotion because you don’t think people should eat chocolate bars, and so they shouldn’t be included in the promotion, is an unreasonable position – in what universe would a little milk bottle toy lead to future excessive milk consumption.

GG hits the nail on the head when he says that brands are competing to be part of the competition – but this is because they want brand recognition above competitors.  They are cultivating market share by making “Anchor” and “Pams” more recognisable names.

In truth all such an act is saying is that ANY promotion that could lead to higher consumption of a good GG doesn’t approve of is bad (so this includes discounts for chocolate bars, pretty labeling of high sugar foods, and Vinylcuttingmachineguide signs up in the supermarket hinting that you should have a dessert) – which in a policy sense gets increasingly close to treating disliked foods in the same way as tobacco and eventually fully banned substances.

But there are limits to our choices!

Of course there are, but it isn’t “perfect information rationality” or “social constructivism” – having to go to either extreme is ridiculous.  To quote from my post comparing the models of choice I use and I think GG use:

Yes we can think of matters through a “conscious” and “unconscious” mind, where the unconscious mind bear similarities to a computer – and where we ex-post rationalise choices to satisfy ourselves.  This model has empirical backing, is logically consistent, and suits my priors – so I’m comfortable with it.  And it is this context that the article Gareth discussed, and his own view on the obesity epidemic, are based.  In this way, yes we have the same model of fundamental choice.

Where we might differ is in terms of our belief that people can, will, and should precommit their actions and influence the rules followed by their unconscious mind.

I take a revealed preference approach to this.  If people don’t precommit, it is because precommitment itself is costly and so the benefits from doing so are presumed to be too low.  Their may be a failure in their expectations or information – in which case government can help.  Government may be able to offer low cost commitment mechanisms, or even at a push use framing effects to “nudge” (note, these framing effects should not be directly costly – something that often gets forgotten).  But that is that.

Contrary to what I often see GG write online, their opponents are not assuming perfect information or hiding behind choice – instead we accept that social factors have an impact on choice, and that habits exist, but we still recognise that people have different preferences and we can’t see them!

Sometimes I want Tim Tams knowing full well that they aren’t good for me, and in some part undermine my exercise.  If that doesn’t fit into your choice framework and policy advice, it is the framework at fault – not my choice.

I appreciate they want to avoid people “tricking me” to make ex-ante choices I regret ex-post, but the more I hear the rhetoric of addiction being whipped out, the more it starts to sound like GG wants to restrict my choice.  I love both these guys, but not enough to let you reduce my choice set 😉

3 replies
  1. Bill Patterson
    Bill Patterson says:

    “[…]led to a situation where they increasingly use the word “trick” to mean “set our preferences.””
    “I appreciate they want to avoid people “tricking me” to make ex-ante choices I regret ex-post […]”

    You don’t think trick is an appropriate for what they really mean, except what you’re describing is what laymen would far more recognise as being tricked. This is presumably a bad thing for GG to be marrying with their economic framework, but isn’t this also about writing for your audience? The articles include lots of inflammatory language which is presumably there to gin up anger. You need output focus to get things done, even if you don’t want it in your theoretical framework.

    I would also hope laymen resolve to have more willpower once they’re aware of the “tricks”. Then again it’s very common for there to be desperate people frustrated by their environment and close family/friends hampering their efforts to change, regardless of nutritional knowledge. Sucks for them to be told their real preferences are the revealed ones.

    “[…] in a policy sense gets increasingly close to treating disliked foods in the same way as tobacco and eventually fully banned substances.”

    Disliked? Either the evidence is there that something is significantly contributing to a public health epidemic, or it isn’t.

    “I appreciate they want to avoid people “tricking me” to make ex-ante choices I regret ex-post, but the more I hear the rhetoric of addiction being whipped out, the more it starts to sound like GG wants to restrict my choice. I love both these guys, but not enough to let you reduce my choice set ;)”

    What are the objections to restricting advertising? NY famously had their Bloomberg soda limits, and it was hated, but as far as I’m aware people when surveyed mostly don’t think advertising affects their choices. All the choice, but people are more likely to have to seek out the choices deemed undesirable by public health evidence.

  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about how food “tastes better” when it’s in a McDonalds wrapper, but then you took in a different direction when you started talking about rational choice and using yourself as the example toward the end. For example, it’s okay to talk about rational choice or how we might be deceived by our eyes (the experiment with the white wine coloured red with food colouring is a good example) but this isn’t about how we might be deceived by our eyes. It’s about ingraining a brand on individuals. We know brands are valuable – otherwise why would tobacco companies be fighting so hard to avoid plain packaging using brand value as an argument?

    The problem is that we’re not talking about adults with the power to make rational choices all the time (although we know that advertising and marketing are designed to take advantage of the cognitive bias that bridges the gap between thinking we’re being rational and not being rational). GG’s argument is that the products are targeted at children. Children have a lower capacity for being able to tell the difference between a rational want on their hierarchy of need, a lower capacity for being able to defer gratification, and are more impressionable and psychologically malleable. This isn’t just children, either. This goes all the way up to early adulthood. The armed forces prefer younger recruits – why? Because they’re not just physically more able and less prone to injury, but they’re also psychologically malleable.

    So the argument isn’t about right here, right now. The argument is about the diachronic effect of marketing. It’s about the brands we grew up with gaining preference, and it’s about associations of good times to processed foods. If children are offered an array of ‘products’ to play with that are high in sugar and saturated fats, or which are marketed by companies with less than perfect records on the environment and human rights, and if they’re offered this on the basis of companies that are able to pay the most to Foodstuffs, then that’s a problem.

    These bits of polystyrene wrapped in plastic might not be a problem to an adult familiar with rational choice theory, but an adult familiar with marketing to children and health promotion might see something else in them. While it’s wrong to see these things as entirely sinister, it’s just as wrong to see them as entirely benign, and that rational choice will win.

    Parents know that they have ultimate control over what their children buy. But while the parent might only get one chance to say no to something a day, advertising and marketing get hundreds of chances every single day to influence them. When that child starts controlling their own money – which, however limited it might be, could be only a few years down the line – then the idea of the power to choose has to be moderated by the ability of advertising to influence us.

    We spend billions a year on advertising and marketing. And companies get more back than they put in. If it didn’t work, and if the battery of psychological techniques that went into constructing campaigns, then they wouldn’t be part and parcel of commerce.

    But they are. And you can’t call choice when smaller humans have less of an ability to choose, and it’s preyed on by a whole industry.

  3. Geoff Simmons
    Geoff Simmons says:

    I have no problem with toy give aways. The issue we raised is that 1/4 of them are junk food and another 1/4 are borderline (high sugar yoghurts etc). I’d like to see the toys kids play with reflect something resembling a healthy diet. If your shopping cart looks like the Little Shop, then you are on a fast track to diabetes-ville. The trouble is that for many Kiwis, that is the reality.

    This stuff is pretty simple.

    1/ do you think children are rational (“sovereign”) consumers and therefore reasonable prey for advertisers? I don’t. And if you think parents control everything a child eats you clearly have no experience of parenthood. Why not target advertising at parents and let them decide?

    2/ As for adults, I have no problem if you want to eat the Tim Tams/ McDonalds. I agree addiction is no justification for intervention (except when that addiction is cultivated in childhood – see 1 above). Trouble is that 1/2 Kiwis say they don’t know how to eat healthily. And according to tests, 1/2 of those that think they do tend to be wrong. I just want to see a bit of honesty in food labelling and marketing. We are a long way from the ‘perfect information’ requirement for a market to function. Tim Tams aren’t the problem per se, it is the sugar salt and fat that has crept into everything – like yoghurt.

    3/ I am happy to admit taxation is social engineering. This is where things get harder. The fact is that we have a huge wave of diabetes headed our way, and tax is the only thing that works to change behaviour at anything like the scale needed. This will swamp what we saw with smoking, so we need to treat it as we treated smoking. The alternative is to watch our public health system keel over. If you are prepared for that consequence for your ‘freedom of choice’ then all power to you. Society eventually chose to make a different choice with cigarettes, and it remains to be seen how they will treat junk food.

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