When New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the ban of soda containers larger than 16 oz to curb the city’s rising obesity rate, the typical lobbying and hearing of experts started. In reality, the success of a soda ban likely comes down to what psychological principles win the race.
New York, New York
New York is a city some say is as tough as nails and its inhabitants among the rudest of the United States. Others still see it as a melting pot, presenting unending possibilities and hubs of creativity. But whatever it is, the city is one thing: it is resilient. What other place of this size could have recovered as remarkably as New York did from a catastrophe with the magnitude of the 2001 attacks?
That a ban on large soda containers could get these people up in arms is therefore a bit remarkable. But when mayor Michael Bloomberg in May proposed that fast food restaurants would be banned from selling soft drinks in cups and bottles larger than 16 ounces (about half a liter), a veritable storm broke over the man.
Yet looking at the fact that in some of the city’s neighborhoods obesity rates have climbed to around 70%, it becomes clear that action has to be taken. The only question is if what amounts to a partial prohibition of soft drinks can cure it.
Points For A Ban
Let’s first examine why a ban might work.
When in 1886 Coca Cola was introduced, it came in 6.5 oz (~0.2 L) bottles. A decade or so later, the company introduced the 16 oz bottle with the slogan “perfect for serving three”. People thought the new, larger bottle contained more drink than any lone person could handle.
Fast forward to today: looking at the nutritional information sheet of McDonald’s (PDF), a small size soft drink has 16 oz, a medium 21 oz, and a large 32 oz.
When a hundred years ago you were handed a bottle supposed to be adequate for three people, your “what is enough for me” comparison value was the small 6.5 oz bottle. In psychology, this is called an “anchor” – the point from which you derive how big, small, cheap or expensive things seem to you. If your “what is small” anchor is 6.5 oz, 16 oz look tremendous. But what if your anchor was set to perceive 16 oz as small?
Placing that 16 oz anchor is only part of how your choice is influenced. Specifically giving you three sizes to choose from takes the game a step further. Because when you get three, which one do you go for? The small cup seems paltry, while the 32 oz looks humongous and few people buy it. But it doesn’t actually exist to be bought; it’s there to make the medium size look better.
In an experiment, psychologist Amos Tversky asked people to choose between a cheap and a mid-range camera, the former with a rather low, the latter with a comparatively high price. It was about a 50/50 chance which one people decided to buy.
But when Tversky added a third option, a deluxe and super-expensive camera, most people bought the mid-range camera. Why? The deluxe camera made the mid-range camera look good and people didn’t want to go for the cheap option, which in comparison to the deluxe model literally looked cheap (PDF).
Tversky called our preference for golden middles “extremeness aversion”. Companies utilize it for selling everything from soda pop to coffee machines.
The Big Point Against A Ban
Taking the above into account, it seems quite clear that a certain degree of manipulation probably took place when our soft drink habits changed.
But do we just have to use smaller sizes and people will judge how much they should be drinking more realistically? This may be what Mayor Bloomberg hopes for, but, unfortunately, things probably aren’t as easy.
Remember all those things that seemed interesting precisely because your parents told you not do them? We simply hate, hate, hate it when someone wants to prohibit us from doing something, even if it is for our own good. That’s the principle psychology calls “reactance”.
It’s actually a neat experiment from the world of food that highlights this: scientists from Iowa State University put warning labels about fat on fast food and found that the more strongly the label discouraged people from eating the food, the more desirable the food seemed to the participants. All after the motto, “heck, I want this, precisely because you don’t want me to have it”.
What Would You Do?
Summarizing this, we on the one hand have the laudable idea of getting people to consume fewer calories, especially in liquid form. The sugary goodness of a Coke passes through the body like a Ferrari, while a Big Mac is more of a VW Beetle. On the other hand, nobody takes kindly to being restricted from their personal freedom.
How should this be handled? Is a ban the right choice? Could it be communicated in such a way that people accept or will it backfire no matter how it is communicated?