Cognition and Choice

Cognition and Choice

Literature: Barry Schwartz The Paradox of Choice, Peter

Discussion by: Chi-Hoon Kim

What is choice? A walk down any supermarket aisle will provide the illusion of a multitude of choice, but in reality many supermarket items are similar products packaged and marketed as unique.  Have you asked yourself: who and what are represented in these “choices” and why? For example, an endless display of cereal boxes can reveal the dark shadows of food politics in America—the aisle becomes a trophy wall of winners in the battle among the government’s institutions and policies on agriculture, trade, and welfare, big food corporations, large-scale industrial farmers, and marketing agencies. This limits our choices because we have little “choice” in deciding who these winners are and should be and creates the impression that we have endless and vastly different choices as consumers.

The concept of choice is firmly rooted in Western philosophical discourse of freedom and individual agency. For consumers, more choice allows control over allocation of personal resources, which we assume leads to fulfilling and productive lives. However, with the rise of the industrialized and corporatized food system, choice has been commodified. More items on the supermarket shelf not only give the consumer more “choices”, but results in potentially greater profit for corporations. This has resulted in an environment that emphasizes the quantity over quality of options.

American culture is one that values the freedom of individual choice, but does it necessarily make us happier? Barry Schwartz and other food scholars grappling with the meaning of choice have found that an increase in choice diversity initially has a positive effect on feelings of happiness but quickly diminishes when there are too many choices. Increasingly, we are faced with an abundance of food choice that can frustrate, demotivate, or even depress us.

So how can individuals navigate the environment of choice overload to maximize their happiness and lead more satisfying lives?  How can food scholars predict how individuals will make food choices? And could this information help us tackle larger health, societal, and environmental issues linked with food consumption?

Dr. Peter Todd, a Professor of Cognitive Science and Psychology at Indiana University, kicked off the first session of the Food Choice seminar by introducing two methods that are used to measure and predict how people choose what to eat (as detailed in a forthcoming chapter co-authored along with Sara Minard). An expert on the use of heuristics in decision-making, Dr. Todd introduced us to rational choice theory and to an alternative “one-reason” heuristic model—based on “fast and frugal” decision-making principles—that has been shown to be as effective as rational choice in explaining food selection.

Rational decision-making theory (popular in classical economic approaches to decision-making) posits that decision-makers gather and assess all the available information about possible options before settling on a final selection through a process of combining that information, for instance using a weighted-additive rule. However, Dr. Todd suggests that the choice abundance present in our daily food environment argues against using such information-hungry rational decision-making approaches, which moreover do not reflect the way in which people make most of their daily decisions. This argument is based on what Nobel laureate Herbert Simon calls “bounded rationality,” which focuses on the limited available information, cognitive constraints, and time pressure that influences the decision-making process. Accordingly, Dr. Todd has found that people actually make food choices based on limited information with a “one-reason” heuristic using the feature that is most important to the individual. This model proposes that individuals often make eating decisions in faster, less effortless ways than what rational decision-making theory allows for.

Once we became familiar with the way a one-reason heuristic model can provide insight into how food choices are made, we began discussing the larger implications to consumption behavior. We contemplated how examining food choices not only in the context of consumption but in all stages of the food system from production, preparation, and waste can help shape our food environments and have significant impacts on our health and environment.
Changing our food environments to achieve long-term health and environmental goals is vital for a sustainable and equitable society—but is doing so by limiting choice a violation of civil liberties? In light of the Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed New York City soda ban, our group discussed possible complications and obstacles for public health initiatives. Is the prohibition of the sale of 16-oz soda at restaurants, stadiums, and movie theaters truly impinging upon New Yorkers’ freedom and agency? On the one hand, if the ban is enacted, people might drink less soda and become healthier, but on the other, what business does the government have in restricting individual consumption in the first place? As our seminar unfolds, we will follow the development of the NYC soda ban as one way of grounding our continuing debate on the impact of choice in decision-making and food consumption.

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