Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: Phalinn Ooi)

(Photo: Phalinn Ooi)

This week’s podcast is about selective outrage — why we get so upset over some things, and then not over others. It’s called “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

We start with Marius the giraffe. Marius lived at a zoo in Copenhagen. Zoo officials said he was a “surplus” animal: too genetically similar to other giraffes, and therefore he couldn’t breed. It was kinder, they said, to kill him. So they fed him some rye bread (“his favorite food”), shot him in the head, and dissected him in front of a crowd of onlookers, including kids. Next they fed his corpse to the lions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the world reacted with outrage.

How did this compare to the outrage expressed over the killing of more than 146,000 people during the ongoing civil war in Syria? Not quite commensurate. Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, noticed this disparity, and he talks about it with Stephen Dubner:

HIRSCH: If you recall there was saturation coverage of a Danish zoo that killed a giraffe in front of dozens of schoolchildren and fed it to the lions. And it struck me that that received so much attention and so much publicity — not that I’m in favor of killing giraffes, in general, or killing any animals, let alone in front of children — but it was at the time when there was such savagery around the word, and in particular, hundreds of people in that week were butchered in Syria, and there was such little coverage about that event, and so much coverage about the killing of one giraffe that it simply struck me that that probably says something about how we think and about the nature of our society.

Steve Levitt says that outrage over Marius’s death, and the increased level of compassion people have for animals, is overall a positive sign for society:

LEVITT: I think being nice to animals is a luxury good. I remember when I first went to China 14 years ago to adopt my daughter and we went to an open-air market. And the animals they had to eat and the circumstances of these animals were just, to a Westerner, outrageous… And then when I went back about five years later, to the same open-air market, what just amazed me is that suddenly they had a big section of the open-air market that was devoted to fish tanks. In just five years, China had boomed in wealth. [They went] from literally eating anything they could find, to deciding it was fun to have animals for pets.

You will also hear from Wall Street Journal reporter Jose de Cordoba, whose article about the Mexican avocado trade perhaps should have outraged people but didn’t. De Cordoba explains how most avocados eaten in the U.S. are “blood avocados,” made to pass through a criminal cartel that extorts, kidnaps, and kills.

And finally, big thanks to listener Rebecca Pearce. She wrote to us with a question that gets Levitt and Dubner wondering what’s more valuable: the life of a polar bear or the life of an economist.

Addendum: We made a mistake in this episode when we said Marius the giraffe was killed in front of a group of people. He was dissected in front of a crowd, but euthanized in private. We regret the error.

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  1. Lara says:

    A reason I think we care more about animals at times than people is because we look at humans as moral agents with free will and therefore we blame them for almost everything. We even blame people for where they were born, and what they were born into because we think people have this unlimited free will.
    We human see animals as non moral agents with no free will therefore only seeing them as just so innocent of their surroundings.

    Lara

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    • Average.Random.Joe says:

      Humans aren’t just moral agents but competitors. Less of you means more for me. I think predominately though it is like they said in the podcast. One, there isn’t much I can do. Anything I do isn’t going to amount to much but I can make a zoo think twice if breeding is a problem killing an animal publicly. Two, it is all about the story and the pitch made to you by media. The tear jerking pieces about a single person would probably have more impact. Not that they died but graphic telling of how. Not maybes like the things implied or unseen in the avocado farmer’s daughter but if someone was dragged into the town square and shot and the story told about that. And that 20% come from somewhere else and I can’t tell if mine is or isn’t blood stained, I can easily justify that mine is part of the 20%.

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    • Jason Kowalke says:

      I think this issue all boils down to EXPECTATIONS. No one expects a zoo to kill a healthy giraffe in front of children. BUT people generally expect places like Syria to have massacres. Like all the cows dying, people generally expect that and are used to that in the West, but in India the thought of it is nauseating. While people in Asia are used to dogs dying for the purpose of food, while people in the west are not. It is not hard to see why people treat their pets better than strangers, they have far more invested in the relationship with the pet than that of the stranger. Also the pet generally does what the owner approves of and expects them to do, while many times, strangers do not. EXPECTATIONS drive outrage – and humor, but that is a different discussion. You put two piles of avocados in a store, and put a sign in front of one pile that says “Conflict Free Avocados” and that pile will vastly out sell the blood avocados, more than the “Cage Free Chicken” outsells the suffered chicken.

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      • Jason Kowalke says:

        Propaganda does a good job of framing those EXPECTATIONS. Show clips of a polar bear stranded on a floating ice block, people will feel sympathy for them, they look gentle and exploited. Show people clips of how that polar bear kills and eats, or clips of them killing humans, and people will not feel as sympathetic, they look ferocious and dangerous. SIDENOTE: And if there ever was 1 or 2 polar bears left in the world they lost the survival of the fittest contest. Being able to adapt and find food in a changing world is part of that contest, but so is being ‘cute’ and winning protection from large groups of humans.

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      • Jason Kowalke says:

        And the presumption that people care more about animals than other humans is erroneous. CONTEXT also matters. As someone else mentioned, replace the giraffe with a human, killed in front of school children, there would be far more outrage. Replace the stranded polar bear on the floating ice clips with a stranded human on the ice. There would ships and helicopters scrambling to feed, clothe, and save them. It seems a bit disingenuous to compare the ‘murder’ of a healthy young giraffe in a world class zoo with the ‘murder’ or ‘collateral damage deaths’ of children in a ongoing war torn area of the world. Far fewer children than in Syria have been tragically murdered by crazy people in the US, and there you see FAR more outrage than you saw for the giraffe – because that is not what we EXPECT to happen in a place the the US vs in Syria.

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    • Renee says:

      It strikes me as very odd that you’d assume people care more for non-human animals than for humans. Equally odd as the rabbi saying, “In the park it’s like most people treat animals better than other humans.” You mean, when they’re petting their dog while eating a hot dog? Most people don’t care about other animals at all, except when they know that individual animal, or when they hear a personal story about one (like Marius). It’s much the same with humans. Do you want people to give to a charity? Don’t try to convince them with statistics, give them a story about an individual.

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  2. Eric M. Jones says:

    You missed considering the Be-Kind-To-Animals propaganda from Walt Disney, et al. having a huge influence on human thought and behavior. My feelings about Marius the giraffe are more economic than emotional. Isn’t there a market for live giraffes? I put him on Ebay (sale pending proof of ability to care for him).

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  3. Steve Nations says:

    What does the zoo feed to the lions when there are no giraffes to kill? Surely not hay and oats and the occasional piece of fruit.

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    • Average.Random.Joe says:

      It was an efficient use of the waste. Better than throwing it all in the trash. Economically, I am sure some rich guy would love to have some on his table and would pay dearly for some.

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  4. chris says:

    I am a big fan of Freakonomics. I’ve listened to all of the podcasts, read the books and watched the movie. I have to say this is the worst Freakonomics podcast I’ve heard from you guys. Normally your stories are well thought out and logical, but this one ignores basic logic and makes bad assumptions so that you can tell the story you want to tell.

    The premise that we are more outraged over the death of one giraffe then we are over thousands of Syrians is because we like animals more than humans is ridiculous. The two situations are completely different. The giraffe was a unique situation in that it was in a zoo and killed by its caretakers when other more humane options were discarded. The most important characteristic of this story is that it’s shocking. We haven’t heard of anything like this before so it’s easy to get outraged quickly. On the other hand, the Syrian situation is all too familiar. We have millennia of experience with humanity’s cruelty to other humans. There are plenty of people outraged over Syria, but we’ve all seen or heard it before. There is nothing the average person can do about it. We don’t even have any symbolic things like stop eating chicken or avocados to make ourselves feel better.

    Let’s flip the example around to prove my point. We humans literally eat millions of animals a day, but with the exception of a few small groups like PETA no one bats an eye. However, if someone eats one human everyone gets mad, disgusted, and outraged. Does this mean that humans are our favorite animal?

    Let’s also not forget that there are thousands of animals slaughtered on animal preserves in Africa for their tusks, horns, meat, and pelts. There is a lot of outrage about this as well, but again there is very little the average person can do about it.

    Normally, the podcast is great, and I really enjoy listening to it. However, this one missed the mark and it was difficult to listen to because you so missed or ignored the obvious. You started to get there in the end when it was suggested that the giraffe had a better story, but never went all the way. Please do better next time.

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    • Buzz says:

      Yeah, the premise of the show was seriously flawed. It is kind of superficially interesting trying to compare uncomperable moral situations such as blood avocados vs veganism.

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    • Average.Random.Joe says:

      I don’t think it missed the mark at all. I think it explored the two senarios and why we choose outrage in one death and ignore the human deaths. They hit many areas, not just that we favor humans. One was that it may be the shock value in a single story, the power in the story is greater than statistics was expressed. I agree though, this was more touchy feely than a podcast based on data and facts is supposed to be.

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    • Renee says:

      I agree that it missed the mark. It made some quite farfetched assumptions while completely ignoring more obvious ones. But in all honesty, this happens more often on this show. I love it, but sometimes, one explanation is picked out of many simply because it’s a cool story. No justification, barely any arguments.

      And, really, to imply that people care about animals more than about other people – it’s absurd. Inflicting suffering on animals is all but accepted, as long as you don’t just do it to one animal but to thousands at a time.

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  5. Dan Palmer says:

    How about we acknowledge the ethical issues with our food supply and other goods, do what we can to buy goods that contribute the least to the above issues and then go on with our lives knowing that while we can’t save the world on our own we should be aware of our choices and their impact on it.

    Why do we either have to feel bad all the time and take action or just ignore the ethical issues altogether and be mindless, pragmatic consumers.
    Consuming is a wasting disease, you know.

    We like OTHER animal species (you are merely a hairless ape with a calculator, Levitt) better than homo sapiens because they – most other species, perhaps not apes so much – do not engage in denial and belief like we do and are purer beings for it.

    My dog would never go to war over something as useless as a belief.
    She also lets you know right away how she feels about you, she can’t/doesn’t lie.

    In other words…we like other species because they are not full of $h..

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    • Average.Random.Joe says:

      Purer beings? Really? Have you seen dogs in the wild without all the care and comfort of domestication? It almost literally become dog eat dog. Compassion is also absent. Dogs hunt and kill for perceived protection, the same reason we go to war. They outcast members that don’t conform or males that are inferior. Animal kingdom has little compassion for the week. And as for lying, we are starting to discover that drug and bomb sniffing dogs follow cues from their handler to indicate false positives. And as for belief, true, those that are struggling to survive and play the battle of the fittest their entire lives don’t get that luxury. But then again, that brings us morals and compassion too. It your definition a tree is even purer being, which just shows how stupid such a definition is.

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  6. Buzz says:

    Part of the outrage for Marius’ death is because it happened in Denmark. Nobody would’ve cared if it was in a Chinese or South African zoo. This is the imagined moral superiority of the Western world.

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  7. Larry Nocella says:

    Good podcast, Freak Overlords. Some thoughts –

    1. You are basing your measurement of outrage on the amount of media coverage. This seems a flawed way to measure “outrage.” If media coverage always paralleled actual interest then we could take CNN’s wall-to-wall non-stop up-to-eleven coverage of MH370 as evidence the missing plane was the only subject anyone cared about ever at all.

    2. That said, I think a better selective outrage example worth noting is that GW Bush and the Iraq war killed 4,000 Americans. 9/11 killed 3,000. Benghazi killed 4. What is the focus of the labled “conservative” movement? Benghazi. That’s some serious selective outrage clearly driven by a pro-Republican, anti-Democratic agenda. But again, is it real, or based on media?

    3. You’re a right an individual can’t do much regarding the market. But I can tell you when I started eating vegetarianish, there was nothing vegan/vegetarian-labeled in the store. Now there are whole sections. I didn’t do that alone, but I was one member of a consumer niche that made it happen.

    Keep Freaking, My Freak Friends,

    Larry Nocella
    The Beanie-Copter Philosopher
    LarryNocella.com

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    • Average.Random.Joe says:

      Some thoughts

      1. I thought CNN has had a ratings bonanza with the plane coverage. I thought they had a huge increase during their coverage. Basing your interest in the media isn’t the populations interest. Media coverage may not be a perfect proxy for public interest but as a commercial interest media outlets need viewers and so they need to give them the material they want or someone else will.

      2. Again, the Iraq/Benghazi paradox is probably due to the same phenomena that we are talking about. A stat isn’t as jarring as a single incident with a story. Doesn’t play on emotions. Saying this many people die from smoking isn’t causing us to universally ban it. Politicization also probably puts blinders on the people, like the outrage of Gitmo 8 years ago and today may have to do with the the letter next to the majority being D now instead of R.

      3. I agree. I always think that economists look at their own action in the margin for their actions but forget that any actions by a group starts with one and influence moves out. Influence also isn’t proportional per person. Someone that, say, has a radio show and podcast that has a following can influence change by living and advocating something more than if they were just an average random Joe on the street.

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    • Nicole L says:

      Larry, you’re #1 point is exactly what I was thinking as I listened to the podcast.

      I do remember seeing the Giraffe story several times on the local news website I most frequently get my news from. But this same website (of course) has not shared the Avacado story, which is much closer to home than Copenhagen’s Zoo story.

      I feel a big part of the problem is Media and what news actually gets shared with the public.

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  8. James says:

    Seems like there are a lot of levels to this. At the most basic economic level, it’s just a matter of supply & demand. There are, per Google, something under 100,000 giraffes left in the world (and the population is declining), versus some 7 billion humans, so any random giraffe ought to be worth quite a bit more than a random human.

    Then there’s the offensive stupidity of their rationale for killing the giraffe. Pass over the bit about it being kinder to kill him – that’s just emotion. They could almost certainly have sold him, dead or alive, for far more than he was worth as lion chow.

    As for the moral aspect, where is it written (outside the texts of certain religions that I don’t follow) that I should have to love humans in general? I care about my friends & acquaintances (who are about equally divided between humans and non-humans). At a higher level, I care about having healthy ecosystems*, because I & my friends have to live in those ecosystems. But in between? Whether it’s lions killing giraffes in the wild, or humans killing each other over religion & politics, my emotions aren’t really engaged.

    *I include human politics as part of a ecosystem.

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