Exercising the Freedom to Choose—For Better or Worse
If you live in New York City, pay attention to New York City news, or even watch, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart you may have heard about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to make the selling of large size (more than 16 ounce) sugary beverages illegal, and subject to a $200 fine. As Jon Stewart has pointed out on the air, this would be twice as much as the fine for possession of one ounce of marijuana, which would only fill half of a big gulp drink cup.
This past Sunday, The New York Times ran an article quizzing readers about their knowledge of exactly how many cans of sugary soda fit into these “big gulps.” This article is based on the research of Pierre Chandon, a French marketing professor who is also a visiting professor at Harvard Business School. Chandon wanted to test the idea that “consumers know what’s best for them” (The New York Times, 2012).
Chandon asked 294 participants to estimate how much liquid was in various sizes of “large” cups—e.g., the size of large soda at a movie theater concession stand—by using the old standard 6.5-ounce Coca-Cola bottle and the 12-ounce can of soda as their measures. What he found was that participants consistently underestimated the amount of liquid in each container. Tara Parker-Pope, author of The New York Times story, also noted that there are “dozens” of other studies documenting a similar phenomenon using other foods such as jelly beans, alcoholic drinks, popcorn, and ice cream (The New York Times, 2012). Parker-Pope said:
The reason comes down to the fact that the human brain has a surprisingly tough time with geometry and often can’t accurately gauge when an object has doubled or even tripled in size. It’s even trickier when the object is a wide-mouth cup, larger on the top than the bottom. “We tend to underestimate the increase in the size of any object,” said Professor Chandon, director of the Insead Social Science Research Center in Paris. “When you double the size of something, it really looks just 50 to 70 percent bigger, not twice as big.”
What Jon Stewart brought up in his multiple Daily Show segments on this was that Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to ban these sugary drinks in the interest, supposedly, of reducing weight gain and obesity, is that it removes people’s freedom of choice. Coupled with the evidence of Chandon’s study and the others, it becomes a problem of whether people have all the information they need to make an informed choice.
Sartre tells us that a person always has choices, even if that choice is not to choose. By telling New Yorkers that they cannot purchase large and extra-large sugary drinks, the Mayor is attempting to take away from New York the choice of whether to consume an extra 8,000 calories a year, according to The New York Times. Isn’t freedom the freedom to make bad choices as well as good ones? At the age of five, my nephew precociously made that argument to his parents after misbehaving in his kindergarten class. If my nephew can consciously choose to make a bad choice, why shouldn’t New Yorkers be allowed to consume as many calories as they want in whatever form they want?
Chandon and his fellow researchers might argue that Mayor Bloomberg is taking this step because consumers cannot be trusted to make these decisions since their perceptions are inaccurate. Thus, in the interest of public safety, the Mayor must step in, and invoking a paternal authority, prevent New Yorkers from hurting themselves. This would situate the law amongst all those dealing with preventing people from harm—e.g., assault, robbery, and murder.
Several years ago, Mayor Bloomberg instituted a law requiring restaurants and take-away places to post the calorie counts of each item on their menu alongside the item listing. Once I found out some of the calorie contents of my Dunkin’ Donuts favorites or my Starbucks frappucinos, I admit that I often chose not to consume the higher calorie snack in favor of the corn muffin or brewed black coffee. This increased awareness of the total picture of what I could choose to consume helped me make healthier choices.
And soon after that legal “success,” the Mayor banned restaurants from using trans-fats in their cooking, requiring many restaurants to change the ingredients of most-loved recipes. But few restaurant goers really spend that much time thinking about the chemical composition of oil in which their food is cooked so neither change—calorie counts or eliminating trans-fats—impacted the majority of New Yorkers’ freedom to choose.
But large sodas at the movies??? Buying a big gulp of sugared caffeine liquid during a rest stop of a long trip??? Personally, I don’t drink sugary soda. So if this ban went into full effect, the effect on me would be minimal. But I am usually never without a liter or liter-and-a-half bottle of water or tea. Why should I be able to drink a big gulp of water or green tea, while the person next to me sips from a 6.5-ounce bottle of cola simply because someone believes that one is “hazardous” to metabolic health, and that we are unable to perceive the reality of the situation correctly? And what if new studies come out touting the value of sugar drinks in increasing alertness, focus, and mood?
Aside from the political impact—and larger questions of big government versus little government—all of which I leave to the political theorists and pundits, this comes down to a question of choice. This ban assumes that even when we know that 50 ounces of sugary soda is an absurd amount of calories, we will make bad choices. Like little children under similar circumstances, we must have therefore have the choice made for us for the sake of our “health.” When do we choose for ourselves and when do we opt to defer our choice to a higher authority, telling us they are making the choice for us for “our own good?”
It’s your choice—for now.
Parker-Pope, T. (2012, June 24). How can a big gulp look so small. The New York Times. [Online edition]. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/how-can-a-big-gulp-look-so-small/.
-- Sarah Kass