The End of Free Will?

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Nature or Nurture? [BB / Flickr]

The corporate lock-up of restaurants began decades ago when the lower echelon eateries – the hotdog stands, automats, cafeterias, carts, etc. – were squashed or subsumed by chain behemoths. There are scattered holdouts, but they’re fading. Again, McDonald’s, KFC, etc. don’t aim to be mere options; their mandate is to fill all space at this price point.

Jim Leff, The Evil That is Panera or Why Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand Reaches for Lousy Chow

Of course, as Leff even points out, these towering fast food franchises are nothing new, but it’s a good place to start a conversation about manipulation, persuasion and freedom from choice.

In 2002, a group of teenagers sued McDonald’s for making them fat, charging, among other things, that McDonald’s used promotional techniques to get them to eat more than they should. The suit was roundly condemned as an erosion of the sense of free will and personal responsibility in our society. Less widely remarked upon was that the teenagers were offering an accurate account of human behavior.

Consider the phenomenon of ‘super-sizing’, where a restaurant patron is offered the chance to increase the portion size of their meal for some small amount of money. This presents a curious problem for the concept of free will — the patron has already made a calculation about the amount of money they are willing to pay in return for a particular amount of food. However, when the question is re-asked, — not “Would you pay $5.79 for this total amount of food?” but “Would you pay an additional 30 cents for more french fries?” — patrons often say yes, despite having answered “No” moments before to an economically identical question.

Super-sizing is expressly designed to subvert conscious judgment, and it works. By re-framing the question, fast food companies have found ways to take advantages of weaknesses in our analytical apparatus, weaknesses that are being documented daily in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology.

Clay Shirky, Edge,

World Question Center,”What is Your Dangerous Idea?”

Where else do you see our “analytical aparatus” being manipulated? At the car dealership? In the voting booth? In the Courthouse? Or at an Open House? How often do you find yourself saying ‘I can’t help myself,’ or ‘I shouldn’t, but I will?’ Have you ever felt that you had no free will? When was the last time that you surrendered it?

Jim Leff

Jim Leff didn’t know it at the time, but he actually wrote one of the first food blogs What Jim Had for Dinner. This is now part of his popular website, known as the anti-Zagat guide, www.Chowhound.com.

Clay Shirky

Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher; Adjunct Professor, NYU Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP)

Megan McArdle

Blogger, Asymmetrical Information

Global agenda correspondent, The Economist

Extra Credit Reading

Clay Shirky, Free will is going away. Time to redesign society to take that into account, Edge.org: What is Your Dangerous Idea?, January 1, 2006: “Super-sizing is expressly designed to subvert conscious judgment, and it works. By re-framing the question, fast food companies have found ways to take advantages of weaknesses in our analytical apparatus, weaknesses that are being documented daily in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology.”

Wayne, What then, will we think about knowing?, Idea Festival, January 17, 2006: “Shirky’s concluding paragraph begs the question, absent a notion of free will, on what other basis will we consider and opt for alternatives in this future society? And who decides?”

Are You Generic?: “Giving brand-america the finger since 2001.

Jimmy Moore, Portion Sizes Have Gone Down a Slippery Slope, Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb, July 30, 2006: “After the movie promotion had ended, McDonald’s realized they had stumbled on a marketing miracle and decided to keep their ‘Dinosize’ meals which we now know as Extra Value Meals and the upgrade which is known as Super Sizing…..as someone who used to weigh over 400 pounds and never really thought much about what I was putting in my mouth on a daily basis.”

Jimmy Moore, Forcing Restaurants To Cut Portions, Calories Is Not The Government’s Job, Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb, June 3, 2006: “If someone goes into a fast food restaurant to buy a burger and fries, guess who made that decision? It was the fast food customer, NOT the fast food company. The company is merely providing a product that meets the needs of the customer base.”

Megan McArdle, Can we sue our own fat asses off?, Salon, May 24, 2002: “If you can’t be held responsible for what you put in your mouth, what are you responsible for?”

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