Things are so bad that Michael Bloomberg is contemplating a run for the presidency. As a businessman Bloomberg is far more successful than Donald Trump. He has far more experience in government. He was surely a competent mayor of the Big Apple.
But Bloomberg was also in thrall to the strange notions of behavioral economics. He knew what was best and he wanted to nudge people in toward healthier habits. He was fascinated by the possibility that if movie theatres served smaller glasses of diet soda people would drink less. Since diet soda is sugary poison, this is an unalloyed good. Right?
A Bloomberg run for the White House would surely provoke a national conversation about the Big Gulp. If there’s anything America needs right now it’s another national conversation about unhealthy foods.
But Mayor Bloomberg did not merely try to ban the Big Gulp. He promoted public service commercials that showed soda drinkers losing their limbs. Call it a guilt trip… it says that if you do what you are not supposed to do you are going to be punished. New York Magazine reports on the amputation ads:
You might remember this ad from the city’s Bloomberg era: An overweight man sits on a stool as he faces the camera; his right leg appears to be amputated below the knee. It was a jarring PSA from New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, popping up in subway cars in 2012 to urge New Yorkers to cut back on oversize sugary beverages. As Thomas Farley, then the city’s health commissioner, said at the time, the intent was to warn “people about the risks of super-size portions so that they can make more informed choices about what they eat.”
In truth, this does not really help anyone to make an informed choice. It is a threat, pure and simple: stop drinking the sodas or someone will come along and punish you.
As ads go, this one was not very effective. New York continues:
There were many problems with this ad. For one, no one is particularly interested in being informed about the possibility of a legless future while riding the subway home. For another: The man in the photograph did not, in fact, have an amputated leg, and the image had been altered to appear more dramatic. Yet had the message been less aesthetically aggressive, it would have likely backfired anyway. New evidence suggests that people who are trying to diet end up eating more unhealthy snacks after seeing negative “food police”-style messages like this one, reports a team of researchers at Arizona State University.
It’s not just that such ads are ineffective. They end up producing the opposite of what they are trying to produce. As it happens, people who are not dieting are unfazed by these ads. But, people who are dieting react by eating more unhealthy foods. Something similar happened when Michelle Obama tried to force children into eating what she considered more healthy lunches. The children refused to eat the carrots and broccoli, but ran out of school at the first opportunity to chow down on burgers and pizza.
Why does this happen? The researchers discovered that when people are presented with negative messages by the food police, they believe that their freedom is being threatened. Thus, they exercise their freedom in the only way they can: by eating unhealthy foods.
For example, dieters who were told that dessert is always bad consumed more dessert than did those who were told that dessert is always good.
New York explains:
While the study’s food messages might seem oversimplified when compared to real-life nutritional information, versions of these negative food sentiments are all around us, from recent dietary guidelines urging Americans to “limit calories from added sugars and saturated fats” to the one-legged man from the old Health Department ads. And yet many of us aren’t listening. “Evidence suggests that most Americans simply don’t follow government eating guidelines, regardless of their accuracy,” [Nguyen] Pham says. “Our paper provides one explanation for why this phenomenon might be happening: People value their freedom of choice, and they resent government intervention that restricts that freedom.”
Other countries do not follow the American example. They do not try to guilt trip people into eating less. They offer a more balanced view of nutrition and even emphasize that eating can be enjoyable:
But consider the discourse around nutrition in other countries. Korea’s dietary guidelines advise people to “balance what you eat with your activity; enjoy every meal, and do not skip breakfast.” Japan says to “[e]njoy snacks, confection, and beverages moderately.” Here’s Germany: “Allow plenty of time for eating and enjoy mealtimes.” And, finally, Canada: “Use terms such as 'less healthy choices' to talk about foods high in fat, sugar or salt. The ‘Less healthy choices’ should be limited but can be enjoyed at times.”
This study shows what happens when we try to regulate human behavior by instituting taboos and regulations. Instead of reducing the obesity rates, we increase them. New York concludes:
The constant instruction to stop eating bad foods in order to be healthy is not only stressful, but it also doesn’t work. As nutritional guidelines have doubled down on instructing us about what not to eat, we have also doubled down on our obesity rates.