You Eat What You Are


A Dutch university has set up a cafeteria/laboratory crammed with cameras and other monitoring devices to learn what influences the food choices people make:

Does it matter if the cheese slices are wrapped in plastic? If the bread is presented as a loaf or sliced up? Whether the salad is on a red table or a blue one? Whether the soft drinks are by the entrance or by the checkout? Or where they stand in relation to fresh juices?

The $4.5 million Restaurant of the Future is run by scientists of Wageningen University and Research Center, working with Sodexo, an international catering firm, and the Noldus software company, to answer questions from the food industry and behaviorists.

“We think of ourselves as rational beings, always making the best choice,” says Rene Koster, director of the Restaurant of the Future Foundation. But that’s not true; 80 percent of our decisions are made subconsciously, he said, citing U.S. studies.

Their effort brings to mind the research of Brian Wansink (who is cited in the article), the examples in Nudge, and perhaps even the “watchful eyes” experiment.

Although the article doesn’t mention it, I would hope the researchers are also experimenting with calorie counts — to see how influential it is to list a food’s calorie count and how long that effect lasts (as we’ve wondered ourselves here and here).


It should be noted that the University of Wageningen is a special kind of university; it's focused on agricultural and environmental studies ('life sciences'), and its students are not representative of the population (much more likely to be environmentalists). The results should thus be taken with a grain of salt IMO.

Simon Halliday

Able - I'd suggest that before you insult the work by Levitt, et al here, you take a look at their journal published work. For example Levitt and List have done very interesting work together in behavioral economics. See for example their 2007, JEP article, or their short perspectives piece in Science, 'Homo Economicus Evolves'.

Clyde Kahrl, I'd suggest that you take a look at Vernon Smith's work on rationality, specifically his recent book where he discusses the differences between the axiomatic rationality of economics (constructivist) and other concepts of rationality, such as what he calls 'ecological' rationality (or download his Nobel lecture where he outlines some of the ideas). Otherwise, take a look at other work by people such as Herb Gintis, Samuel Bowles or all kinds of other economists who use evolutionary game theory and evolutionary explanations for economic phenomena. You might be surprised.



I know I'm not the only one who was expecting an intricate study of cannibalism following the post title. Way to disappoint..

Clyde Kahrl

Wow, am I missing something, or isn't this just the most amazingly stupid conclusion used as a precondition, namely: if it is subconscious then it is not rational?

I ought to just stop with that axiomatic statement, but realizing that some might not understand it, I'll dilute it's effectiveness by continuing.

The vast majority of MY subconscious and reflexive responses are the result of my rational decision-making over the course of many years. I have worked hard to program my subconscious reactions.

Other "subconscious" reactions are default reactions resulting from tens of thousands of years of evolutionary discipline.

In terms of the practical requirements of living our lives maybe we ought to look at people who think about this stuff, namely the AI guys (artificial intelligence, not artificial insemination). After all of these years of AI types, like economists predicting that artificial intelligence was "just around the corner" people who REALLY STUDY this stuff have concluded that we will never have practical robots until we can program things like fear and intuition into the robot.

Think about crossing the street. It is so difficult most roads are littered with the carcasses of wild animals of all sizes as well as very smart ones like dogs. And, even high-school-drop-out-single-mothers are smart enough to not allow kids under 7 to cross busy streets. Think about it. Think about how difficult it is to cross the street. Then think about these stupid economists talking about how we are "irrational" because we allow our "subconscious" to dictate our decisions. Jesus, I wonder how long it takes these guys to cross the street--or maybe they need help--or hell, maybe they just live on campus.



I hope the data collection for the research is done by now...

"If we used the word 'laboratory,' it might influence behavior." == "once it gets out in Freakonomics it might influence behavior"

a chauvinist

the hotter the server, the more likely I choose what she is serving

Bobby G

That article is fascinating... I wonder when more research results will be available, and what sort of food channels this research could be extrapolated to...


Can fish be rational?


the 'rational choice' model for food will always be a reductio ad absurdum- what would spock eat: roast beast or turkey?- of course the vegans will hold up their nose as being more rational, until they end up having to critique mother nature- when the big fish eats the small fish, is it being irrational?

Clyde Kahrl

Simon Halliday:

I am not suggesting that Freakonomics or its intellectual predecessors limit rationality to certain rigid structures of wrong and right as defined by the authors and determined by the frontal lobes of the unwitting consumer. But I am saying that this article indicates the authors of this article think so. This reflects some of the more sinister aspects of traditional thinking in the dismal science, and it is troubling that it is still around.

Bobby G

Whoa whoa whoa, Able, before you put the sights on economists and move your finger towards the trigger, think about what YOU are saying, then think about what traditional economics says.

The beauty of economics is that while talk is cheap, money is not (bear with me). When someone says what they "would" or "will" buy, who knows how certain that information is. Who knows if, by the time they reach the moment of decision on whether or not to buy a product, they will, based on their claim that they "would?" What we can say, however, is that when someone DOES buy something, regardless of their prestated intentions, they have made their choice on what is the good decision.

So while someone might say, "OK, I'm only going to buy healthy foods from now on, no matter what," they might go out and buy a candy bar at lunch instead of the salad, being swayed at the last minute by that candy bar. This doesn't indicate that this person is stupid, or irrational, it simply indicates that the weight of their committment was not strong enough to avoid the last minute decision to buy a candy bar.

So just relax, and have a little faith in your economics tools before you throw them out the window. Be more comprehensive in your analysis, and if you run into bumps, try to think around them instead of giving up altogether.



“We think of ourselves as rational beings, always making the best choice,” says Rene Koster, director of the Restaurant of the Future Foundation. But that’s not true; 80 percent of our decisions are made subconsciously, he said, citing U.S. studies.

Irony & hypocrisy has nothing on economics...

WHY Can economists not see that the very basis of their discipline is 80% WRONG?

It's very easy to see that we are not rational being when we eat food, but you still base an entire field of study (ECONOMICS) on the very mythical "rational man".

(Not too mention you can't subtract or see "un-paid" value.)

For once I'd like to talk about Economics, the benefits and shortfalls.

Why is that type of discussion completely absent in this forum? Or any other discussions of critical importance to civilization, our future and it’s relation to economics.

Your silence is deafening!!!

Why not step outside the box and let people discuss alternate theories, or at least what's wrong with the current theory. The current form of ECONOMICS is obviously broken. Why not address this subject? Is it because it's hard to accept that your whole academic & professional existence is built from blatantly false assumptions.

Freakonomics is becoming a more appropriate term everyday. Let's get real, Leavitt.