When Food Advocates Tell You What To Serve Your Customers

It was interesting to see Chili's re-rejigger their menu recently, eliminating a number of recently added healthier menu items to focus on the chain's traditional fare of burgers, ribs and fajitas.

Yet again, another well-meaning company, while attempting to "healthify" their menu, discovers their customers never went there for healthy food in the first place. Nobody goes to Chili's for quinoa and kale.

But Chili's recent about-face highlights a risk all companies face: not knowing the difference between what people say they want and what people actually want.

Or to put a finer distinction on it: what people who know what's good for us say they want, and what actual customers want.

Consider food policy experts like Marion Nestle or Michele Simon: both would love it, simply love it, if chains like Chili's and McDonald's were to offer far more "healthier" food options.[1] They've both put extensive public pressure on many of these companies, criticizing their current food offerings and demanding healthy items like salads, fruit, and so on. And even when, say, McDonald's does offer a healthier option, it never satisfies: Nestle and Simon will reliably say the company "hasn't gone far enough."

But here's the problem: Michele Simon and Marion Nestle aren't customers of McDonald's. Neither would be caught dead eating at a McDonald's. Hilariously, Michele Simon even wrote in her book that she only enters fast food joints to use their rest rooms![2]

Which takes us to an interesting question: When a food policy expert campaigns for major menu changes at restaurants they'll never go to, can you come up with any reason--any reason whatsoever--why a company would bother to listen? If a food advocate wants to influence what companies offer their customers, is this really the way to go about it?

READ NEXT: The Consumer Must Be Protected At All Times
And: When It Comes To Banning Soda, Marion Nestle Fights Dirty

Amazon Links: 
Michele Simon's book Appetite for Profit
Marion Nestle's book Food Politics

[1] Let's set aside for the moment the highly uncomfortable topic of how recent dietary science has turned upside down much of our views about which foods are healthy.

[2] See Appetite For Profit, page 197: "Another survey showed that nearly all U.S. adults, at one time or another (97 percent) eat at fast food restaurants. For those of us (like me) who only see the inside of a fast food joint on long road trips (and even then just to use the restroom), this statistic is a sobering reminder of how the rest of the nation eats."

How to Use Ersatz Knowledge For YOUR Benefit, Not Theirs

This week's post offers some follow-up thoughts on an article from two weeks ago about ersatz knowledge. Today, I want to explore how we consumers can use it for our benefit.

Recall that when we talk about ersatz knowledge, we're talking about information that appears to be useful, but in reality is used to achieve ends contrary to the consumer's best interest. For example, after a consumer has painstakingly learned all about cigars, a genre of wine, or tennis racquets, the process of acquiring this knowledge produces a weird sort of loyalty in the consumer.

It's not really loyalty though. What it is is a desire to make this ersatz information worthwhile--to use it, to put it to work. And this becomes a ready-made justification for spending more money on that product: by going up-market, buying more expensive versions of the product, buying future versions of the product, buying various accessories for that product, and so on. Psychologists would call this justification of effort. After you put so much effort into learning about cigars, there's gotta be a payoff in there somewhere, right?

Thus we can see how ersatz knowledge can be used to extract a sort of long term buy-in from the consumer, causing us to spend more. Usually much more.

Some readers might misinterpret what I'm saying so far: "Wait, are you saying we shouldn't try to become more informed consumers? That we shouldn't learn anything about the products we're buying?" Holy cow, no. That's not what I'm saying at all. In fact, saying so would be in total contravention to everything I've ever written here at CK.

What I am saying is there is sometimes a game being played around you, a game that takes advantage of your laudable desire to learn. Therefore, I want you to be able to meta-interpret the information around you, to distinguish between ersatz and actual information, and to use this information to level the playing field. And to help you do this, I want to offer a few insights and clues to help you use ersatz information for your benefit, not theirs.

1) Use all product information to find price inefficiencies and opportunities. I'll share two examples here, one with wine and one with coffee. Typically, the domain of wine is fertile soil for the worst kind of ersatz information, but here's one major exception: wines from Chile, Argentina and New Zealand typically offer the same quality at a far better value than much higher-priced wines from France and California. Knowing this helps you save money. Another example: a commenter in my prior post talked about using knowledge about coffee to find better value in what he buys. In both of these cases you use their knowledge to save your money. Many domains are loaded down with ersatz information, but if you use that information with an eye to discovering value, you can actually save money while increasing the quality of what you buy.

2) Be wary--incredibly wary--if you repeatedly learn information about the same genre of products. The classic example here is Apple products. How often have you heard someone go on and on about some feature or app on their iPhone, but when the next version comes out, this same person goes on and on again about the next new features and apps on that phone too? In other words, if you're learning a body of knowledge over and over again about different versions of the same product, you're being played, badly.

3) Watch out when the people "informing" you are also selling to you. In such cases there's a gigantic likelihood that the vast majority of the information is ersatz, and that information is skillfully structured to get you to pay more... and rationalize it to yourself. One solution here is to balance all vendor-based information with external and independent sources (Consumer Reports, for example) to verify and sanity-check any information you've been given.

4) Recognize instances where you ego blinds you. If you can step back and observe your ego throwing up contra-evidence and contra-examples to defend all the knowledge you've painstakingly acquired (Ultra high-end beer really is worth it! Let me hold forth intelligently on all the reasons why! And none of this is ersatz expertise! Really!), you're more likely to avoid getting sucked in to a deep and inescapable buy-in process. Nobody likes to think they've been tricked by the very knowledge they thought important to learn. And certainly no one wants to learn that the expertise they painstakingly acquired is just an elaborate buy-in device to get them to spend more. Your ego will want to protect you from this embarrassing truth by rationalizing and justifying. Look out for it.

On a related note: one of the reasons I selected cigars to illustrate the concept of ersatz knowledge was because nobody reading a healthy food and frugality blog is going to be "into" cigars, and thus no reader is likely to personalize the product category and ego-defend against criticisms of their knowledge of it. This (I hope) allowed me to better illustrate the concept. More on this at the end of the post.

5) Do you spend more now on this product compared to before? Once you learn all their terminology, once you're in their club with your knowledge, isn't it funny how you always seem to be spending a crapload more? This is the easiest-to-see clue that we've been taken in by ersatz information. With all this amazing information you now have, why do you seem to be carrying water for them, giving them so much more of your hard-earned money?

6) Watch out for status-signalling and virtue-signalling. Once again, let's consider the always-instructive domain of wine: the ersatz knowledge in this domain really seems like real knowledge, largely because consumers can signal sophistication and intelligence by regurgitating it. Do you enjoy signalling your knowledge by holding forth about a product or service that's been sold to you? When your knowledge of a product starts to become a part of your self-image, you're no longer a consumer with agency. You've been played.

A final thought: To paraphrase Daniel Kahneman in his brilliant book Thinking, Fast and Slow, it's always easier to see cognitive errors anywhere but in ourselves. Think once again about cigars: to the average reader here, it probably seems vaguely funny--if not pathetic--to spend, say, fifty dollars on something only to set it on fire. It seems even worse to light that fifty dollars on fire with a fifty dollar double torch lighter... while holding forth on how to retrohale. "Sheesh. That guy has no idea that he's regurgitating ersatz information. He's getting rudely separated from his money!"

See how much more easily we can see these mechanisms at work in domains we don't personally care about? Cigar smoking is a useful domain to explain ersatz knowledge because it's unlikely to trigger ego defense in any readers here.

Which takes us to the central insight: there are consumer product domains that we do care about, lots of them, where we are rudely separated from our money by these very same ersatz knowledge mechanisms. We just need to look a little more carefully through our egos to see it.

Read Next: Epistemic Humility

And: Nine Terrible Ways to Make Choices (That You Probably Didn’t Know You Were Using)

Techniques and Practices of Voluntary Discomfort

I thought I would articulate in a post some of the techniques and habits I use to embrace the important Stoic concept of "voluntary discomfort."

If you recall from our other discussions of various aspects of Stoicism: voluntary discomfort is a tool of enjoyment, as counterintuitive as that may sound. The idea is simple: if you (temporarily) give up a pleasure, or (temporarily) deny yourself a comfortable experience, you'll appreciate and enjoy that experience far more--and far more profoundly--when you resume it.

Short-circuiting hedonic adaptation
We humans adapt quickly to pleasures and comforts. Honestly, it's rather disturbing to see how things that once gave us immense pleasure rapidly become expected, required, even "needed." Worse, our minds quickly redraw a pleasure baseline from any new pleasure or comfort, which means in order to experience the same level of pleasure or comfort in the future, we constantly need more. We can see easily how this drives various insane societal behaviors such as consumerism, the constant pursuit of the new, status-signaling and Veblen-esque conspicuous consumption.

If you think about it, the Stoic practice of voluntary discomfort is essentially a lifehack for short circuiting hedonic adaptation. A two-thousand year old hack!

So, here are a few examples of how I "do" voluntary discomfort, ranging from the seemingly silly to the significant. I'd be grateful if readers would share their ideas in the comments… I'm always on the lookout for new ways to apply this incredibly useful Stoic tool.

Going without my usual near-daily glass of wine for a few days in a row:
Once again, we very quickly adapt, hedonically speaking, to any situation. I've discovered that when I consume alcohol daily, I deaden the very pleasure I chase.

Intermittent fasting/delaying a meal:
I wrote briefly about this concept in my post Waiting Until We Are Hungry Before We Eat. Few things heighten the satisfaction of a meal like genuine hunger.

Taking a cold shower:
Nothing--and I mean nothing--better enhances your appreciation of a nice hot shower the next day. When I wake up and realize "Hey! I don't have to take a cold shower today!!" it's the start of a very good day.

30-day trials of giving up something pleasurable or comfort-inducing:
I've given up chocolate, alcohol, sugar and junk food on various 30-day trials over the years. These are both tests of will (that I derive pleasure from, interestingly) and they deepen my appreciation of the thing I give up.

Turning off the air conditioning on a hot day/Leaving the heat off on a cold day:
On a really hot day, have you ever left the AC off until you can hardly stand it, and then turned it on late in the day? This is a silly--yet not silly--example, but it just shows how a comfort briefly withheld becomes a comfort we stop taking for granted.

Days/weeks of spending very little money:
Here at Casual Kitchen, we generally make a point of reducing our spending during the summers. We cook simple, low-cost food at home, we avoid meals out, and we try to do less.

Other possible examples:
Eating the same meal several days in a row
Wearing uncomfortable clothing
Walking instead of driving
Waking up early/not sleeping in
Going a period of time without social media

Readers, I'm always looking for new ideas to exercise voluntary discomfort--what ideas can you share?

READ NEXT: Two People, Fifteen Days, Thirty Meals. Thirty-Five Bucks!

Using Your Sophistication and Great Taste Against You

The consumer products industry is very skilled at selling things to you. Sometimes they sell so well, they don't even have to try. They create an environment where, sometimes, you carry water for them. You do the work for them by convincing yourself to spend more.

They can even do this while making you think you're smart, enlightened and above average.

One easy way this can be done is by creating an entire domain of ersatz knowledge and expertise that consumers want to learn, so they can become more "sophisticated" and have a greatly deepened appreciation of a given product.

Let's consider a textbook example of such a product: cigars.

How can we get legions of otherwise intelligent consumers to spend lots of money on cigars? It's quite easy actually.

First, create an entire body of knowledge out of the domain and make it so the customer has to work to learn all the nuances and details of cigar making... where the really good cigars come from, how they're made (by hand, painstakingly, of course), which are the best and why, and so on. Have them learn various memorable narratives about certain cigars: "This one, a newly legal Cuban, was made at the factory owned by Fidel Castro's personal cigar-maker," let's say. Or: "This one, from a remote village in Nicaragua, is made from tobacco grown from transplanted seeds of the finest Cuban tobacco breeds."

Be sure to have your customers memorize a long list of jargon, terminology and idiosyncratic phrases. Have them learn what it means to "toast the foot." Have them learn how to "retrohale." They are becoming knowledgeable about a very high-end, very elite topic. Let them signal their intelligence and sophistication by holding forth knowledgeably about it!

Then, sell them accessories, high-end ones of course. After all, it's pathetic to use a match when you can use your double torch lighter ($42.99). Using your teeth seems so undignified, so neanderthal-like, when you can use your personalized silver cigar cutter with its own carrying case ($59.99). Another advantage: accessories serve as mini ersatz knowledge domains too, by which a consumer can easily signal still more of his or her sophistication and good taste.

Now, let me ask readers a few questions: Once this cigar-buying consumer has learned all these things, once he's attained a meaningful level of sophistication, will he spend less money on cigars, or will he spend more? Or will he spend much, much, much more?

Which leads to another obvious question. Is it really in the interests of the consumer to obtain this knowledge?

Is it even "knowledge" at all?

Notes/For Further Reading
1) The Diderot Effect

2) Constructed Preferences

When Things Don’t Make Sense

There are some really strange and kooky things in our modern food system. Like, for example, the fact that there are 20-30 different kinds of jams and jellies in your local grocery store.

An easy career move any aspiring food pundit or food blogger can make is to write an article pointing out something weird or senseless like this (it's ridiculous for there to even *exist* 30 kinds of jam!), and then use that seemingly weird, senseless fact as self-congratulatory proof that "our food system is broken."

There was even a book about the "jam problem," at least in part: The Paradox of Choice, in which author Barry Schwartz[1] discusses many instances where the modern consumer environment offers what he sees as an inappropriately dizzying array of choices.

One way we can react to seemingly senseless or dumb things, like 30 kinds of jam, is to shake our fists and wonder why things are so stupid. Even better: if you wonder out loud to the people around you about how weird and dumb these things are, you can score bonus virtue-signalling points too![2]

Except that situations like the jam/jelly problem, as weird and dumb as they may seem, are cognitively tricky, trickier than they at first appear. And the first thing we need to do in cognitively tricky situations like this (uh, right after shaking our fist and pointing out how weird and dumb things are), is to consider one of our minds' worst habits: They like to form quick explanations for things. And worse still: our minds love quick explanations that neatly fit into our existing world view.

Well, it really is kind of ridiculous to have 30 kinds of jams and jellies. I can't see any other reason for it other than pure corporate greed.

Can you believe all of these jams and jellies? The store should use this space to sell healthy quinoa, or... or lentils! The food industry is trying to make us all fat.

First, let's start with a heuristic: Any relatively simple explanation that fits your worldview should be spontaneously rejected as unlikely. We'll see why shortly.

Second, just because something doesn't make sense to you doesn't mean it doesn't make sense. We are limited beings. We may not see the whole picture, or whatever system or set of phenomena we happen to observe might simply be opaque to us.

Third, any explanation (for anything) that comes to mind comes from our minds. As circular and definitional as that statement may sound, it hides an insight: when things come out of our minds, they're almost always dripping with solipsism, with our own narrow way of looking at the world.

We can see now that our brains, in just a couple of rapid-fire thoughts, have reached three distinct layers of cognitively suspect conclusions:

a) Our initial opinion, that it's ridiculous that there even exist 30 kinds of jam, is likely wrong.

b) Our explanation for why there are 30 kinds of jams and jellies is likely wrong too. Our brain leaped to it too quickly, and it too neatly fits our existing world view.

c) Finally, most of our ideas and explanations will suffer from some (possibly calamitous) degree of solipsism.

Sadly, we now have SCIENCE!!! piling on too, explaining to us why things are the way they are, and how they should be instead. Now, one would hope that credentialed experts will take their time to form explanations, using careful study design and even more careful testing methods. Their conclusions will be rigorous, correct, and not pre-fit to some pre-existing world view.

Hmmmm. Let's see if this is true about jams and jellies.

Well, as a matter of fact, one of the best known studies in the genre of choice paradox was the famous "jam study," where, conclusively, it was found that when customers were given far fewer choices, they buy more jam. A lot more: some ten times as many customers purchased jam when faced with six choices compared to customers faced with 24 choices.

So the idea that it was ridiculous and dumb to have 30 kinds of jam in the grocery store now had the blessing of evidence-based, credentialed SCIENCE!!! Intelligent consumers everywhere were given a clean, simple explanation, and that explanation had the added bonus fitting our world view: It really is stupid to have so many kinds of jams and jellies! Nobody needs all that.

Now let's step back a moment. The so-called "jam study" dates from the mid 1990s. That's more than twenty years ago. If it were actually that much more profitable to sell far fewer types of jam, don't you think grocery stores all over the world would have done so? If greed supposedly explains everything they do, you'd think they'd leap at the chance to put these credentialed scientific conclusions to work ...and make even more money.

Whenever we find ourselves at war with reality, we're given an opportunity to consider that we're wrong.

And it turns out the jam study (and Barry Schwartz for that matter) studied the wrong thing: Neither considered the fact that almost all jam-buying consumers have already long ago settled on a brand and type. They already know what they want, and if they don't find "their" jam, they don't buy at all.[3]

Thus the grocery store isn't actually subjecting consumers to a dizzying array of choice by carrying dozens of types of jams and jellies. The idea that there were "too many choices" was an error of solipsism--an error committed by Schwartz, by the designers of the fatally flawed study, and us!

When a store carries what seems like a "ridiculous" number of types of the same product, all these brands and types are not there for you or me. We buy the specific type we want, and so do all other customers. Collectively, these products, as long as they remain profitable for the store to sell, make up the what the store carries. The grocery store simply offers the brands and types that consumers have already settled on, and as a result, there are exactly the right number of types of jams and jellies.

In reality, what the "jam and jelly aisle" really represents--to Schwartz, to the jam study people, and to many consumers who consider themselves smarter than the marketplace in which they participate--is essentially a problem of aesthetics. We're all intelligent people, and it just doesn't make sense to have so many more jams and jellies than any of us as intelligent individuals would think was necessary.

To us, there are more varieties than there needs to be, it doesn't make sense, and somebody should do something about it. See how that works?

[1] Note that I do not intend the specific criticisms of this post in any way to take away from the many valuable insights in Schwartz's book. For me, one of the most profound insights I learned from The Paradox of Choice was the concept of "satisficing."

[2] The virtue-signalling here is nuanced and often difficult to see (all virtue-signalling must be non-obvious, by definition, in order to be truly effective). The mechanism here: by pointing out something dumb, one appears smart by (unstated) comparison. Look around carefully, and you will see all kinds of examples of this type of behavior. One common current example occurs when people point out how stupid (or inarticulate, or hotheaded, or treasonous, or gesticulatory, or racist, or orange, etc.) our President is. This particular example also shows how easy it is to virtue-signal without us realizing we're actually doing it.

[3] See this interesting article on a re-analysis of 99 studies of choice paradox, which uncovered explanations why you actually might want dozens of kinds of jam after all.