The Situationist

The Bagel Situation

Posted by Adam Benforado on August 29, 2010

If you order a “bagel with cream cheese,” how much cream cheese should be provided with the bagel?

That was the question my girlfriend and I pondered the other day as we drove through New Jersey futilely trying to remove half of the cream cheese on our bagels without the aid of a knife.

Why is it that nearly every bagel that we buy has considerably more cream cheese than we want?  Is it that people can somehow sense that we are from Philadelphia?

If some people prefer a little cream cheese and some people prefer a lot, doesn’t it make the most sense to provide a small amount of cream cheese unless someone speaks up and voices a preference for more?  That way, everyone gets exactly what they want (and no more than they want).  And people who don’t really have a strong impulse either way are saved from consuming needless extra calories.

A lot of recent discussion concerning combating the obesity epidemic has been around the ability of the government to ban particular unhealthy ingredients or products, like trans fats and salt.  But perhaps we should be spending more time thinking about resetting food defaults, rather than on outright prohibitions, which tend to engender a strong backlash from certain sectors of the public

Already, there is a considerable amount of valuable research being conducted on how portion sizes and ingredient lists are set and how these elements impact our waistlines, but we need to think more about how we can use this data to accomplish meaningful policy prescriptions.

What if, in addition to a light spreading default, every bagel shop served light cream cheese unless you  asked for the higher-fat / higher-calorie alternative?

What if all sodas currently referred to as “diet” were relabeled as “regular,’ and “regular” sodas became “high-calorie” sodas?

What if “lite” beer became “standard” beer, and everything else became “heavy” beer?

What if when you ordered a sandwich, the regular side was a salad and you had to ask to substitute in fries, rather than vice versa?

What if the default when you ordered a latte was skimmed milk and you had to specify if you wanted whole milk?

One of the great benefits of a “resetting defaults” strategy is that it is much harder for opponents to attack as “anti-freedom” or “paternalistic.”  In each of the above examples, free choice would be completely preserved.  All the existing food and beverage options would still be there.  Every person would be at liberty to have fries and “heavy” beers at every meal.  However, Americans would have to actively choose what they wanted to eat; they could no longer sit back and have the choice made for them.  For those who elected to operate on autopilot, the result would be a far healthier diet.

Does such a “nudging towards health” proposal really have any negative impact on individual autonomy?  Are food defaults frighteningly paternalistic?  I don’t think so, but maybe all that cream cheese has gone to my head.

* * *

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Situationism’s Improving Situation,” “Dr. David Kessler Waxes Situationist,” “The Situation of Eating – Part II,” The Situation of Eating,” “The Situation of the Dreaded ‘Freshman 15′,” “Our Situation Is What We Eat,” “Social Networks,” The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” and “The Situation of Repackaging.”

To access Adam Benforado’s article, entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America (co-written with Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon), on the situationist causes of the American obesity epidemic, click here.

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7 Responses to “The Bagel Situation”

  1. Victoria said

    Er… it’s to give you the impression you’re getting value for money (while the actual cost of cream cheese compared to whatever else you had in your bagel, or the bagel itself, is relatively low). If they give you a bunch of stuff you don’t want that costs very little, they can use it to justify charging you disproportionately more without you feeling you’ve been short changed.

  2. just me said

    What Victoria said.

    Also, if I grab a bagel to go and find out later there’s only a measly skim of cream cheese on it, I’d be pissed. If you’re worried about too much then grab a plastic knife on your way out, in anticipation.

    I guess my point is that you’re making the assumption that other people want/need these assumptions reset. Some people WANT fries as the default – maybe they are perfectly healthy and active, rarely eat out, and this is their one treat now and then.

    It still all comes down to personal responsibility (when it comes to obesity). For example, I don’t worry about diet vs. regular soda…because even diet is really unhealthy, so I just don’t drink it. Yes, even when it’s free or cheap. Maybe it’s the INTERNAL defaults which need to be reset.

  3. Hi Victoria and Just Me,

    Thanks for the comments! A couple of quick responses:

    1. The question the post was designed to raise was why we have super-sized portions as defaults when that is not in our collective best interests, not whether super-sizing is profitable for businesses. As Jon Hanson, David Yosifon, and I have chronicled in other work (see, e.g., pages 1694-1700 in Broken Scales), it definitely can be, just as you point out (although we’d suggest that the relevant costs are likely not the bagel or whatever else you had with it, but rather the fixed costs of the physical space of the restaurant, employee salaries, advertising, etc.).

    2. With respect to the comments about personal responsibility and focusing on resetting “internal defaults,” that’s been the major push with respect to addressing obesity in America and it just hasn’t worked. In the United States, there are certainly individuals who manage to maintain a healthy weight in the midst of a “toxic” food environment and a large majority who don’t. As we suggest in Broken Scales, if we really want to make big strides in our battle against obesity, our best hope is to focus on our situations not on our dispositions.

  4. Those are great questions and I’ve wondered exactly the same thing every time I’ve had a bagel with cream cheese. I give up and get peanut butter instead because it comes in a package and I can spread it myself.

  5. Victoria said

    1. The question the post was designed to raise was why we have super-sized portions as defaults when that is not in our collective best interests, not whether super-sizing is profitable for businesses.

    Why do you think we have profitably super-sized portions as defaults despite it not being in our collective best interests?

  6. Mike said

    People may not need or want the defaults reset, but those people are no worse off because they will still be able to have that which they prefer.

    From a public policy standpoint, this idea has value not because of those people, but because of the large number of people who are indifferent between whole milk and skim milk – why not give them the healthier version if they don’t care?

    This has the additional effect of stigmatizing the unhealthy version – as opposed to now, when there is, in my opinion, a slight stigma on the healthy version. My choices of salad over fries or wheat bread over white bread quite often elicit comments from my friends that can make me quite uncomfortable while ordering in front of them. Flipping that around is no doubt better for the purpose of public health.

  7. […] at the end of August, I wrote a post about the benefits of “nudging” people towards heath, in particular, by resetting food defaults.  I argued that we could combat obesity without unduly […]

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