Why You Should Bribe Your Kids: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: Nana B Agyei)

(Photo: Nana B Agyei)

This week’s episode is called “Why You Should Bribe Your Kids.” (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.)

Let’s say you’re trying to get a bunch of kids to eat more nutritious food. What’s the best way to do this — education, moral urging, or plain old bribery? That’s one of the questions that a pair of economists set out to answer in a recent field experiment in Chicago. In this podcast, you’ll hear from both of them: John List, a University of Chicago professor (and co-author of The Why Axis who’s familiar to readers of this blog); and Anya Samek, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

They tried several methods to see what would make kids choose fruit over a cookie. One trick, Samek tells us, easily beat the rest:

SAMEK: It actually works every time. So we come in five times and every time we have these really high rates of selection of the fruit.

The conversation then broadens, addressing the fact that so many people — kids and adults — have a hard time making good short-term decisions that will have a long-term benefit. As List puts it:

LIST: The general point here about all of this is that you have many problems where what you do now affects what happens later, and usually we choose the easier decision or the easier action now. You think about savings for retirement, you think about getting doctor check-ups, you think about going to school, you think about engaging in risky behaviors, you think about adopting green technologies for our houses. In all of these cases we usually choose the bad action. And that action is to do what’s best for us now to the detriment of the future, to the detriment of our future self. And nutritional choices right now are just one of these elements that we face in society where we need kids to recognize the choice that you make now will critically affect your outcome in the future.

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “La Rive Gauche” (from Under Paris Skies)]

Stephen J. DUBNER: Hello, John List?

John LIST: Stephen Dubner, how are you doing, man?

DUBNER: I’m great! How are you doing?

LIST: Great! Great!

DUBNER: John List is an economist at the University of Chicago. And he’s a family man – five kids.

DUBNER: Now… do you… do you ever have to bribe any of your kids? I’m just curious, John.

LIST: Every now and then I have to incentivize them. I don’t call it bribing. I call it incentivizing them. My kids refuse to eat seafood. So this comes directly from my wife who claims to have gotten a bad piece of fish when she was a third grader, but I’m a big seafood lover, and we were in the Bahamas about six months ago and I thought of an incentive scheme for my kids that included a large sum of money if they would eat fish for seven consecutive days.

DUBNER: And how’d that work out?

LIST: Three of the five kids it worked for. They collected the money. And I was hoping then that they would acquire a taste for seafood, that they would say, “You know, Dad, that whitefish is actually pretty good.” Or, “You know, one time we had crab legs”. But no, zero of five for the long run the minute we touched ground back here in the states….The kids have not touched fish since, even the three of five who were eating the fish down in the Bahamas.

DUBNER: How much did they get from you?

LIST: I better talk about that off air. Put it this way, a lot of money.

DUBNER: So three of them at least played you pretty well, though.

LIST: Well, I don’t know about played me. They responded to the incentives, they ate the fish.

DUBNER: But your incentive in giving them that big cash bounty was not just to get them to eat it for the week, presumably.

LIST: Absolutely. I wanted to modify their long-term behavior. And it’s hard to… it’s just a lesson that it’s really hard to change habits.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “Thanks Maw” (from Outcries From A Sea Of Red)]

DUBNER: So is it possible to bribe kids to eat the food you want them to eat? And even if it’s possible, is it desirable? That’s what we’re talking about on today’s show — but not just about bribing and eating; we’ll talk about how bribing incentives may work with all kinds of behaviors. Now, you just heard John List describe his failure to bribe – excuse me – to incentivize his kids to eat something they didn’t want to eat. That was his experience as a parent. So you might think that, as an economist, John List also doesn’t believe that incentives can change the way kids eat. But you’d be wrong. List recently ran a field experiment in Chicago, along with another economist, Anya Samek.

Anya SAMEK: Okay, so what we’re trying to do is understand what kinds of small behavioral nudges or education we can use to actually improve children’s food choices.

DUBNER: That’s Samek. She’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,

SAMEK: And we’re using this after-school program called the Kids Café. And there are 24 of these in the city of Chicago and surrounding area. Kids come there, they receive some help on their homework, and then they’re given free food. And what we do is we randomize these different Kids Cafés. And when I say randomize I mean we randomly put different Kids Cafes into different treatments. We have one treatment where we tell the Kids Café just carry on as you are, but at the end of the food-choice we’re going to give kids a second choice, it’s going to be which dessert to have. And they can either have the healthy dessert or the less healthy one.

DUBNER: And what are the two desserts you’re offering, the healthy and the less healthy?

SAMEK: So the healthier dessert — this is actually a good question — we thought about this for a long time, and the healthy dessert is a cookie…I’m sorry.

DUBNER: Wishful thinking.

SAMEK: Yeah, yeah, yeah the unhealthy dessert is a cookie…

DUBNER: What kind of cookie?

SAMEK: We really were quite careful and we chose a low-sugar, whole-wheat cookie. And the reason we did that…

DUBNER: Oh, come on, and that’s the good one?

SAMEK: We didn’t feel comfortable going in and giving 1,500 kids who were at risk for obesity a really high-sugar, delicious cookie.

DUBNER: Okay. Alright.

SAMEK: The healthy dessert then, we again ran into a problem, so we really wanted to use fresh fruit. And unfortunately because of the logistics of how this food is delivered, which is actually another big problem with the way that we deliver food to kids in these school lunchroom settings is that we couldn’t get fresh fruit there so we had to use dried fruit.

DUBNER: Which has sugar concentration problems of its own that fresh fruit doesn’t have, yeah?

SAMEK: Yes, exactly. So one thing that we can’t do is say that for this particular 1,500 kids we really improved their nutrition because all we did was we observed their choices. And all we needed to do was believe that most kids were going to choose the cookie and that’s the less healthy option, and that’s exactly what happened.

DUBNER: Okay so all else equal, you’ve got 1,500 kids roughly. They have their meal and then they do homework and maybe hang out and play a little bit. And then at the end they’re having this snack, this dessert with a choice, yes?

SAMEK: Yeah.

DUBNER: Okay, and just describe to me how this is, how the experiment itself is set up. How is the choice set constructed?

SAMEK: So we announce to kids that they get a choice of this dessert. And we tell them they can only choose one item and they have to eat it there in the cafeteria. And then we come around and we have these trays in which we have a large number of cookies and a large number of fruit and then we just have kids choose one. All of these kids, we know all of their names, we record exactly what they’ve selected, and that’s our control group.

DUBNER: Okay, and you’re doing this for a few days, a few weeks to establish a baseline, how does that work?

SAMEK: We come in twice and then we have kids make this choice, and what we find is that less than 20 percent of kids are choosing healthy. And then we come in for a period of five more days in which we now have these treatment schools actually receive incentives or education. And what we find there, we come in, we read all this information about the food pyramid, so we tell kids that look you really should choose the fruit, fruit’s really good for you, we have this campaign, it’s called Eat Strong, so we tell them you should eat strong. You’re going to be strong on the playground, you’re going to learn more at school, it’s going to be very good for you, this is really good for your health, the USDA recommends that you eat more fruit. And we show on the food pyramid. We have all these posters, and we walk around and show these posters with the food pyramid. And kids don’t improve their food choice at all.

DUBNER: Okay, so teaching them doesn’t improve their choices, or it doesn’t change their choices. Now before we declare that a dead end, do we know that this mode of education was a good one, or maybe…Like when you’re telling me that, if you tell me that if I eat this little cup of raisins and dried apricots that I’m going to be a stud on the playground and a superstar in the classroom, I’m just going to say, ‘Anya, you seem nice, but I don’t believe you. That doesn’t sound compelling to me.’ Do we know if the education is actually considered legitimate by them?

SAMEK: Well, it’s the education that you would administer if you went on the USDA website and pulled off their informational materials.

DUBNER: Right, I know that, but what I’m saying maybe the USDA isn’t so good at this. I realize I’m throwing a stupid thing in the middle of your smart thing. But that’s the way I think.

SAMEK: No, so obviously we could be using the wrong education, that’s true. So we can’t say much about whether it’s the right education or not. But what we can say is that we give them this education, we tell them about how healthy fruit is and 8 out of 10 kids still choose the cookie.

DUBNER: Okay, alright, so that’s not working so well. What else do you have up your sleeve?

SAMEK: So we come in and we have these incentives that we thought, we didn’t even know what to do with these incentives because they were a little bit lame, so we just had these pens, we had these rubber bracelets and then we have these tiny plastic trophies that just said “I ate strong.” And we told kids if you choose the fruit and you eat it, you get to pick out one of these prizes. And now we have 8 out of 10 kids who are choosing the fruit.

DUBNER: Oh my god, for plastic trophies, and pens and rubber bracelets.

SAMEK: That’s right. So these things are very popular. They’re very cheap so they cost us less than a dime each. And kids are choosing healthy and they don’t have any education about why they should be choosing healthy, at least from us. But now we’ve really improved food choice.

DUBNER: Now, how do we know this is not just a novelty, that it’s the first time that they get offered the incentives, or does it not even matter? Is it just a matter of kind of switching the habit or the preference?

SAMEK: Well it actually works every time. So we come in five times and every time we have these really high rates of selection of the fruit.

DUBNER: And do they actually eat the fruit then? Or do they just —

SAMEK: They have to eat it to get the toy. They have to eat it.

DUBNER: And did you check their cheeks and so on like in prison to make sure they swallowed or they’re sticking it under the table, or it doesn’t go that far?

SAMEK: We were actually pretty careful. So this study took a lot of undergraduates from the University of Chicago who were walking around and monitoring these kids.

[MUSIC: Phil Symonds, “Caravan Cookoo”]

DUBNER: Okay, so what did the researchers take away from this experiment?

SAMEK: Overall all of these studies really show, first of all, that you can make a small change in a school setting, in a food setting, for kids and have it have a big impact on choices. It shows that education is not enough. We actually do find when we combine education with incentives, that that has the strongest long-term effect, which I didn’t address earlier, but that’s an important point, that in addition to education we need to really give kids a moment where they can make a choice. And that’s the moment where we can provide a nudge, where incentives can act as a great nudge for that.

DUBNER: If I’m a restaurant, I want to sell a lot of food, I want to make the money that I’m able to make. If I’m the government, I think especially as I’m paying more and more for people’s health care long-term as the government, I want to keep people healthier and therefore I have an interest in getting people to eat more nutritiously. So I can put some pressure on restaurants to either serve more nutritious food, serve less food, or help them somehow come up with a scheme to at least educate people or make them a little bit more likely to eat more nutritious food. So I can have calorie counts, or maybe even subsidize healthier food choices. That seems to be fairly viable. Yeah? Do you see evidence of that kind of thing going on and working well?

SAMEK: One project we have that is very effective, it’s a small nonprofit grocery store on the south side of Chicago called Louie’s Groceries. And we’ve gone in and we’ve been running studies in which we give adults incentives for choosing at least five fresh fruits and vegetables in their cart. And we’re actually giving them a dollar for every five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables they buy in a shopping trip. And we’re comparing that to another treatment in which adults are just receiving some educational information about why it’s important to eat fruits and vegetables. And there we see almost the same results that we’re seeing with these kids. So in a real environment where adults are making decisions about purchasing, incentives really work.

DUBNER: So the takeaways here seem to be that fruit must be subsidized whether dried or fresh, yes?

SAMEK: Right.

DUBNER: And that kids can be bribed successfully.

SAMEK: Yeah, well adults can be bribed successfully, too.

[MUSIC: The Jaguars, “The Swagger” (from The Jaguars)]

DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: so we can incentivize choices that benefit society, at least in some cases – but why should we have to?

LIST: You know, I think that this is one of the most important issues that humanity faces, is making this tradeoff between doing something costly now that will benefit me or humanity in the future. Things like staying in school, things like saving for retirement, things like adopting green technologies.

DUBNER: Also: if you are not a subscriber to this podcast – well, please become one. It’s free. It’s easy. You can sign up at iTunes – and then you’ll get the next episode in your sleep.


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

[MUSIC: Seks Bomba, “Cal Tjader” (from Thanks and Goodnight)]

DUBNER: We heard Anya Samek describe the field experiment she worked on with John List.

LIST: I’m John List, and I’m a professor at the University of Chicago’s economics department.

DUBNER: What, exactly, does John List do?

LIST: And what I do is I go out into the real world and try to change it for the better using field experiments.

DUBNER: That sounds pretty simple. Can you give me an example?

LIST: Very simple. So let’s talk about the simple example that we’re talking about today. What we’re after is we’re trying to explain or describe first of all the consumption choices of the underprivileged children in America. And once we see the types of foods that they’re consuming, which is not a great thing. You know, if they have a choice between a cookie and a bowl of fruit, they choose the cookie. So our idea is to go out…

DUBNER: Now, John, can I just interrupt you for once second there? Is it fair to say that this is the kind of poor choice, relatively poor choice that an underprivileged kid makes or is that the same choice do you know that a mediocre-ly-privileged adult would make as well. In other words is this a function of childhood or…

LIST: Absolutely.

DUBNER: I’m just curious to know what you know about food choice in children versus adults generally?

LIST: Yeah, so I think that this is a general problem, but you have the problem in an even stronger way amongst the underprivileged who have less resources to use to purchase and consume healthier foods. So when I say underprivileged, I think this is our experimental testing ground, but nevertheless you do have the same problem throughout society. You have kids, you know, running an obesity rate of about one in five across America. And in urban settings the obesity rate is a little bit higher than that. But the general point here about all of this is that you have many problems where what you do now affects what happens later, and usually we choose the easier decision or the easier action now. You think about savings for retirement, you think about getting doctor check-ups, you think about going to school, you think about engaging in risky behaviors, you think about adopting green technologies for our houses. In all of these cases, we usually choose the bad action. And that action is to do what’s best for us now to the detriment of the future, to the detriment of our future self. And nutritional choices right now are just one of these elements that we face in society where we need kids to recognize the choice that you make now will critically affect your outcome in the future.

[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Shadow Of Your Soul” (from Let’s Cool One)]

DUBNER: There’s an idea, quite prevalent in our society, that if we can only teach people that they are making poor decisions now that will adversely affect them later – well, they’ll make better decisions now. But the experiment that John List and Anya Samek did in Chicago, trying to get kids to eat healthier snacks, showed that an educational message didn’t work at all, at least not in that setting. So… maybe it’s reasonable to think that educational messaging isn’t as potent as we think.

LIST: Right, I think at just about every walk of life we have messages like get out the vote, it’s your duty to vote. We had messaging in the States on smoking for decades. And now with a combination of changing the prices of smoking, and what I mean by that is increasing the tax rates on purchases of cigarettes, along with messaging, those together formed a very important duo to curb smoking in the United States. But when you look at other countries, just go to Europe, you can see that smoking is alive and well in Europe. And they surely have the same information that we have on the detrimental effects of smoking. But I think in every walk of life you have people saying stay in school, don’t do drugs, you know, messaging has a really hard time working, and I think by and large because they recipients of those messages is not a demander of that information. And if you’re not a demander you will have very little use for that information. You know, people say we should be green, we’re ruining the planet because of carbon emissions, global warming. But again, that’s a problem where if we curb our consumption of carbon now, that hurts us, that hurts our economic growth, and we’re not going to see the advantages for 50, 100, 150 or 200 years. People don’t want to make that tradeoff between now and then.

DUBNER: Do you think that policymakers and other, you know, incentive creators are starting to get the message that educational messaging especially when its got a sort of moral tone to it is not very effective, or do you see people in the academic and research realms where you live who understand this quite fully just look out at those policymakers and say, ‘Oh boy, they really don’t get it yet’?

LIST: Right, I sort of see, I sort of see both. On the one side you have policymakers who don’t get it. On the other side, you have policymakers who really do get it, but that’s really the only tool at their disposal. You see, using messages is cheap. You have government agencies… right now I’m working with the U.K. government to try to convince people to pay their taxes. You have many people who have not paid their income taxes in the U.K. And the U.K. government sends out letters to them every year telling them please pay your taxes. So they ask us, ‘Can you run some field experiments with us to help convince people to pay their taxes’? And we propose all kinds of different incentive schemes — you know, fines, jail time, all these fun things that economists dream about, and the policymakers say we can’t do that. We can’t change law. But what we can do is we can add those two cool sentences that you used back in your 1998 study, and we can use those sentences, which are on moral suasion to try to get people to pay their taxes. So, you see, they’re smart enough to know this might not be a great tool…

DUBNER: It’s the best they have.

LIST: Yeah, and it’s not very costly, and that’s important to them.

DUBNER: So, John, is the takeaway message of your study that it’s better to bribe kids to eat healthy food than to just teach at them?

LIST: I think the message would be you want to do both. I think you do not want to use messaging alone. If you do use messaging you should combine it with an incentive, because that will allow you to convince kids to make better choices, but it will also yield better consumption choices. I think we need to understand that this is a two-part problem, not only the choice but the consumption. And what we find is that messaging along with incentives give you that outcome, or that set of outcomes that you want.

[MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “Bella’s Boogaloo” (from Outcries From A Sea Of Red)]

DUBNER: Now take what you learned from this study, which is that incentives work in terms of food consumption, and generalize it for me as much as you can not only out of the experimental realm, but out of the childhood realm.

LIST: Right absolutely. You know, I think that this is one of the most important issues that humanity faces, is making this tradeoff between doing something costly now that will benefit me or humanity in the future. Things like staying in school, things like saving for retirement, things like adopting green technologies. We have to convince people right now to make the right choice for, in many case themselves, and also society, and I believe that strong dosage of incentives combined with tasteful messaging will allow us to get to that point, where we have people making the right choices now that will yield the right outcomes in the future. So when you think about all of our major problems, it’s a tradeoff through time. And you have kids who would rather skip school and go have fun when they’re 16 years old than stay in a boring algebra class. It’s a very simple point of calculus for them. They don’t see that the future labor market returns are 12 percent for every year that they stay in school. When you’re 16 years old you don’t even think about what’s going to happen when you’re 25 much less when you’re 18. And we need to combine the correct basket of incentives to align the kids’ choices with what society wants them to choose.

DUBNER: Okay, so that’s all well and good to say, and even if one believes it, and I personally tend to pretty much believe what you’re saying, what do you do? What is that basket of incentives for a 16-year-old who’s teetering on the edge of dropping out or not going to school?

LIST: Yeah, I think it is both. It depends on what realm we’re in. If we want to talk about education I think the solution is changing the prices to education. What I mean by that is taking some of the future rewards that we as a society reap from the kids staying in school and not committing crime and going to jail, taking some of those rewards and giving them to the kids now, or giving them to the parents now to incentivize the parent to make sure that the child stays in school, takes school seriously and goes on and gets the right education to help society and the future. That might be different than our food choices, for example, because we’re not talking about 16-year-olds now in our food experiment, we’re talking about six, seven, and eight-year-olds. Incenting a six, seven and eight-year-old with dollars doesn’t make any sense, you know, you have to choose, again, the right incentives. We chose toys, things like rubber ducks really turn a seven-year-old on. So I think in each case there is not a silver bullet, but nevertheless in each case in the long run we need education because, like I said, habits are what keep you going. And I think the education and information change beliefs but only over generations. I think now you have my kids who are coming home and telling me, ‘Papa, you better not smoke that cigar because it’s really bad to smoke.’ When I went home and saw my mom smoking I never thought it was a problem, smoking. But now our kids they’re actually programmed to think that smoking is a really bad thing. That has taken place over generations, and that’s were I think information and education works over the long run when we change habits. But you need initial incentives to change the motivations of our kids now. We just don’t want two generations of lost children because we couldn’t change their habits, we need to change the motivations now, and I think incentives will do that.

[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “Zingarelli” (from Under Paris Skies)]

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  1. John Drotar says:

    The reason that these programs have been effective is not that they are bribery but that they create an immediate feedback loop, this is something that the gamification community (the case for playing games at work could be a great episode by the way) studies very intently.

    If it were simple bribery à la Skinner box, you would see satiation and a reduction of effectiveness. Had they run this experiment 100 times at the school they would have seen more and more children taking the cookies at the end even if the rewards were greater. Also counter-intuitively a smartly designed system with non-tangible or “virtual” rewards could be more effective and for longer than it would take to arrive at satiation in the bribery experiments.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I think you’re right that fewer kids would pick the fruit-and-toy if the bribe were the same every time (how many rubber bracelets do you need?). But I’m not sure that the results would be worse than where they started off. Instead of 80% choosing fruit, you might end up with only 30% choosing fruit. But you probably wouldn’t end up with 10% choosing fruit.

      Part of this is because the kids would develop a notion that they were the kind of kid who usually chose the fruit. I could see this working especially well among girls: the popular girl chooses fruit, so I will, too. (Also, having tried both, some of them might have decided that the sugary dried fruit tasted better than the health-food-in-disguise cookie.)

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      • average.random.joe says:

        They did establish a control that showed the cookie was preferred but healthy cookie vs dried surgary fruit isn’t really that wide of a choice so the incentive to do one will be small. Often if the difference between choices is small, we don’t worry about bribery or adding incentives. We only do that when there is a larger gap in tastes or habits. Like eating fish, the example at the start, you may convince those that really didn’t hate it more than the large bribe but obviously the father knew a lesser bribe would have had no participants. Hence he was embarrassed on the size of the bribe. And how many ate the fish afterwards? The the alteration of incentives from don’t change long term behavior unless the bribe is done long term. And a large gap, which is what we are talking about, that isn’t as inexpensive a proposition as implied on the show.

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  2. Andrew Haugland says:

    I really liked this episode. It reiterated a conversation I have had with my friends about the insights video games can give into micro and macro economics, social behaviors, motivations, and an entire host of other fascinating interactions. Video games (specifically the MMO (Mass Multiplayer Online) genre) are only limited by ideas that would sink the game. Want to see the effects of community self regulation to the capital degree? Convience a developer to allow players to pickpocket each other’s inventory, but as soon as the deed is done mark them for global PvP (Player verse Player) combat.

    Insentives in video games have long fascinated me. Take Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and League of Legends for examples. Each is an MMO of a different subgenre (FPS, RPG, MOBA respectively), but all use insentives to keep players coming back. Some use rewards of value (WoW giving new and better loot for coming back to play the newest ‘raid’), and some use 100% asthetic rewards (League of Legends releasing a new outfit for a champion).

    The insight that is available seems right up Freakinomics alley, and I am more than a little surprised I have not heard an episode on the topic. Just something to ponder.

    As always I love your stuff, and keep up the good work!

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  3. barbara says:

    i just want to point out that it is no longer the food pyramid but we should now follow my plate.

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  4. James says:

    This appears to overlook something obvious, which is that the behaviours that they are trying to modify aren’t universals. There are subsets of the population who actually do prefer fruit to cookies – and who save money, make ‘green’ modifications to their houses, chose not to smoke even before there was all the anti-smoking messaging, and indeed, who even thought that algebra class was far from boring.

    So instead of blindly shooting in the dark with attempts at behavior modification, why not try to figure out why these sub-populations are different?

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  5. Winnie says:

    When my boy Archie was 2-and-a-half, he stopped eating anything but pizza and chicken nuggets. ANYTHING. We tried starving him and only offering other foods….nope. Time out? Nope. Just would rather starve. This was Christmas time, and I come from a Swedish tradition of believing in Tomten (gnomes) and trolls and such. We told Archie that we would call the Tomten and report on his eating, and if he was a good boy, he would get presents in his clogs left outside the door. Every night after dinner, I would “call”, and he would put his clogs out and receive a small toy–Hot Wheels, train, bouncy-ball, whatever. On one evening, he outright refused his food, demanding in his best toddler way to have “NUGGETS!” I calmly gave him the nuggets, then made my call. The Tomten were disappointed, they told me. We put the clogs outside and went to bed. Archie found rocks in them in the morning, and was SO upset. He ate every meal after that. When Christmastime was over, my husband and I couldn’t see putting away this awesome incentive, so we kept it up, making calls every night, but only providing presents once a month (usually to coincide with some other American holiday). The presents got better as he grew–DVD’s, a game for his Wii, but he never failed to eat his food and try new things. He is the kid other parents say, “See, look what Archie eats!” Archie is 11 now, and only figured out that his parents were doing the work of the Tomten last year, and was really aghast at how we kept it up. “You mean, you did ALL that? The WHOLE TIME?” He may end up in therapy when he’s older, but at least he’s a good eater and will try almost anything. Incentive Success!

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  6. Julien Couvreur says:

    Dubner asks a good question which was un-answered: why would the child care about or trust USDA content presented by a stranger? (Not to mention that the bad nutrition advice of the food pyramid may be part of the obesity problem)
    Along those lines, I am surprise by the narrow conception of education conveyed in this episode. Education on food choice is ruled out (as “it doesn’t work”), without considering education by a person with whom the child has a close relationship and bond.
    Since the goal is to get a long-term effect, it seems that unless children internalize what is good and build good habits. But the experiment discussed does not seem to cover that aspect.

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    • average.random.joe says:

      It seemed like the study had a goal and a point and did what needed to be done to get those results. Education as a means of behavior change I thought was well documented and that education programs have seen success in the past. They skimmed over that but education modifies the long term and in the short term to get someone to do something they don’t want to do can be expensive like the fish story at the beginning. It can be cheep if is was a on -the-fence decision like that of whole wheat cookie and dried fruit (read concentrated sugar food more like candy than healthy alternative).

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  7. Julien Couvreur says:

    When the topic changes to the role of government, Dubner states that companies have incentives to profit and government has incentive to solve problems and reduce costs (I’m paraphrasing). I have to ask, as Milton Friedman famously did: “Tell me where in the world do you find these angels who are going to organize society for you?”
    There are un-examined assumptions that people in government (1) don’t want job security, (2) don’t want to increase their role and power, and (3) have a time horizon that is longer than the average citizen.
    As James Buchanan and other public choice theorists have pointed out, reasoning about a perfect government in comparison to a realistic market is comparing apples and oranges (Nirvana fallacy). It is worthwhile to you consider politics without romance and examine the incentives of politicians (elected members of government) and bureaucrats (the unelected mass) in comparison to those of private actors in the market.

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    • James says:

      Another side of this, of course, is that companies – perhaps different ones, but still companies – are well able to make profits by providing fruit to those who like fruit. After all, your grocery store produce section is likely to have a plentiful supply of everything from apples to zucchini, none of which is supplied by the beneficience of government.

      Likewise, Whole Foods and others have shown that it’s possible to make profits by selling organic foods, Vanguard, Fidelity, &c make money by providing IRA and 401k plans to people who save for retirement. Other companies make profits from selling solar panels, LED lights, electric cars, and more. So it hardly seems reasonable to put the blame for some individuals’ poor choices on the profit motive.

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      • Liza says:

        Yeah, no role for government in our fruit minus farm subsidies, inspections for quality, infrastructure to get fruits to market, etc.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        In the US, fruits and vegetables don’t get crop subsidies. Federal crop subsidies are for things like corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, rice, and tobacco, which aren’t as perishable. Local governments might provide property tax breaks or free water for irrigation, but federal money doesn’t really help broccoli growers.

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      • James says:

        In any case, the subsidies (& infrastructure &c) aren’t really at issue, since the makers of non-healthy processed foods get the same benefits, if not greater ones. The point is that all the people involved in getting fresh fruits & vegetables to stores, and then to the customers’ shopping carts, are motivated by profit, just like the people who make processed foods.

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