Food: Getting lost in social constructivism

By Matt Nolan 14/09/2014


After reading both the Stuff article and the initial article on Gareth Morgan’s blog and the follow up, I am convinced both Gareth and Geoff Simmons (GG) have inadvertently become extreme social constructivists – but may not realise it yet.

Now I hate it when people just whip out rhetoric like “social constructivist” and don’t explain it – so what do I mean, how have they gone this way, and what do we know about this type of framework so we can analyse it?

Social constructivism

I like to get definitions off Wikipedia, and in this case this does a good job of articulating how I understand the concept:

Social constructivism is a sociological theory of knowledge that applies the general philosophical constructivism into social settings, wherein groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings. When one is immersed within a culture of this sort, one is learning all the time about how to be a part of that culture on many levels. It is emphasised that culture plays a large role in the cognitive development of a person.

In combination with the economic framework that is used, both here and by GG, with their views on the unconscious mind have led to a situation where they increasingly use the word “trick” to mean “set our preferences.

As a result, it has become increasingly clear that whenever GG says the “food industry is tricking us”, it is just a rhetorical device for expressing the term “the food industry is setting our preferences in a way that we disagree with/believe is bad for the individual”.

Social constructivism does have a nugget of truth, and in the formative years of childhood there are important elements too it.  However, there are two key concerns:

  1. It becomes purely deterministic, especially in conjunction with a deterministic view of choice, thereby absolving the individual of responsibility from their own actions.
  2. By its nature there are “multiple equilibrium” with no clear definition of value – therefore it is a framework that appeals to utopians (and dystopians) who simply want to pick an outcome and demand we do what we can to get there.

Althought GG accuse others of extremism around choice – this rings hollow when their own framework is pure extremism.  If you don’t eat in a way that GG feel is appropriate it is not a choice, it is because someone else is forcing you.  By using a purely constructivist framework, they absolve themselves of facing the value judgement that people may have a preference for the unhealthy – and may trade that off to consume something they enjoy.  They allow themselves to target obesity as an outcome by making it external to the individual, when such a view is fundamentally insulting about the individuals capability to make choices.

Social constructivism is very popular with people who have an outcome they want to target, and want to ex-post motivate it.  This type of output focus, combined with a downplaying of individual agency, is the antithesis of the way I view economics – which is why I can’t help but write something ;)

Where do you “disagree”

First let me state down where our frameworks meet.  Advertising to and information for kids does matter.  We build up a stock of habits, rules of thumb, and physical attributes as children which have a fundamental impact on the type of life available to us as adults – and we are ill equipped to make choices for ourselves.  In that case we do need to think about these types of issues.

But the point is that we are building up a stock of habits, rules of thumb, and physical attributes here – and it is through the active choices of adults.  Even in an “ideal” childhood where a masterful adult unaffected by advertising “creates” us as our own “perfect adult”, our preferences will differ.  As we just inherently like different things.  In such a place, we will still enjoy things.

When I was young we rarely had chocolate, and I wasn’t allowed coffee.  However, when I was an adult I loved chocolate (over it now) and caffeine drinks (still do).  No doubt these things aren’t good for me, and GG would gladly tell me so I’m sure, but I know this and want to do it anyway.

They reach far too far in trying to say that deviations from their ideal are due to promotions like toys in supermarkets.

This doesn’t answer the idea of toys in supermarkets though

For this, let me go to an old post of mine.

So food with a McDonalds wrapper does taste better. Now I’m sure many people will take this as a sign that advertising is evil, as it can lead to children being overweight, however I think it is an awesome service provided by McDonalds. You see McDonalds advertising makes food taste better, they increase the value of the product to an individual by advertising it, and getting all your senses excited. Although two otherwise identical products might seem homogeneous to you, the fact that the McDonalds wrapper is on one and not the other implies that one has the value associated with advertising while one doesn’t. As all McDonalds is doing is increasing the value of their product, thereby increasing demand I don’t have a problem with it.

However, there may be a role for government intervention yet. If McDonalds is an addictive good, and the consumer had no a priori knowledge that it was addictive, then the increase in future consumption (and the associated negative effects) of McDonalds is not taken into account when the person purchases a product. By advertising, they can increase demand and make more people fast food addicts. Now to do not know the degree with which fast food is addictive. However, government regulation, such as education or limits on advertising could be useful.

What is the advertising doing?  Is it increasing the subjective pleasure associated with the experience?  Is it misleading (making ex ante expectations and the realisation different) or creating a cost for other choices?  The difference matters if we actually respect individuals enough to accept they have some agency over their own choices.

In the case where we give little kids a toy of a milk bottle, a carrot, or a chocolate bar at the supermarket we are undeniably normalising “shopping at the supermarket”.  But in this instance it is hard to see how it will have much to do with anything about the kids stock of habits or rules of thumb growing up – apart from recognising certain brands above others.

Turning around and criticising the promotion because you don’t think people should eat chocolate bars, and so they shouldn’t be included in the promotion, is an unreasonable position – in what universe would a little milk bottle toy lead to future excessive milk consumption.

GG hits the nail on the head when he says that brands are competing to be part of the competition – but this is because they want brand recognition above competitors.  They are cultivating market share by making “Anchor” and “Pams” more recognisable names.

In truth all such an act is saying is that ANY promotion that could lead to higher consumption of a good GG doesn’t approve of is bad (so this includes discounts for chocolate bars, pretty labeling of high sugar foods, and signs up in the supermarket hinting that you should have a dessert) – which in a policy sense gets increasingly close to treating disliked foods in the same way as tobacco and eventually fully banned substances.

But there are limits to our choices!

Of course there are, but it isn’t “perfect information rationality” or “social constructivism” – having to go to either extreme is ridiculous.  To quote from my post comparing the models of choice I use and I think GG use:

Yes we can think of matters through a “conscious” and “unconscious” mind, where the unconscious mind bear similarities to a computer – and where we ex-post rationalise choices to satisfy ourselves.  This model has empirical backing, is logically consistent, and suits my priors – so I’m comfortable with it.  And it is this context that the article Gareth discussed, and his own view on the obesity epidemic, are based.  In this way, yes we have the same model of fundamental choice.

Where we might differ is in terms of our belief that people can, will, and should precommit their actions and influence the rules followed by their unconscious mind.

I take a revealed preference approach to this.  If people don’t precommit, it is because precommitment itself is costly and so the benefits from doing so are presumed to be too low.  Their may be a failure in their expectations or information – in which case government can help.  Government may be able to offer low cost commitment mechanisms, or even at a push use framing effects to “nudge” (note, these framing effects should not be directly costly – something that often gets forgotten).  But that is that.

Contrary to what I often see GG write online, their opponents are not assuming perfect information or hiding behind choice – instead we accept that social factors have an impact on choice, and that habits exist, but we still recognise that people have different preferences and we can’t see them!

Sometimes I want Tim Tams knowing full well that they aren’t good for me, and in some part undermine my exercise.  If that doesn’t fit into your choice framework and policy advice, it is the framework at fault – not my choice.

I appreciate they want to avoid people “tricking me” to make ex-ante choices I regret ex-post, but the more I hear the rhetoric of addiction being whipped out, the more it starts to sound like GG wants to restrict my choice.  I love both these guys, but not enough to let you reduce my choice set ;)