Rational Irrationality and Satter's Hierarchy of Food Needs

Published on: 15:55PM Oct 20, 2018

In HIERARCHY, DISAGREEMENT, AND FOOD POLITICS food economist Jayson Lusk discusses Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and a modification or application by Ellyn Satter. Satter conceptualizes a hierarchy of food needs. Basically the idea is that as society reaches more advanced levels of economic development and incomes rise, our preferences related to food change.

"Satter called the top of this pyramid "instrumental food" and she said such foods were consumed to "achieve a desired physical, cognitive, or spiritual outcome."  If we're talking about food satisfying a particular view of what I think of myself (I eat what I am) or food satisfying a "spiritual outcome", why would we expect you and I to agree on what is "best"?  In this sense, we might expect food consumption to be more politicized"

Another way of thinking about this is that high end food fads marketed by the likes of Chipotle and Whole Foods are 'normal goods' i.e. as incomes rise their consumption should increase. There is a reason why you only find certain food chains and grocery stores in areas where incomes are higher.

Satter notes: "These instrumental reasons may or may not be rational or supported by scientific inquiry."

This is not so different from the concept of 'rational irrationality' discussed in Brian Caplan's 'The Myth of the Rational Voter':

"...people have preferences over beliefs. Letting emotions or ideology corrupt our thinking is an easy way to satisfy such preferences...Worldviews are more a mental security blanket than a serious effort to understand the world."

This means that:

"Beliefs that are irrational from the standpoint of truth-seeking are rational from the standpoint of utility maximization."

And in application:

"Support for counterproductive policies and mistaken beliefs about how the world works normally come as a package. Rational irrationality emphasizes this link."

One of the main themes in the book is that this leads to systematic biases in voting behavior and policy. Particularly, these kinds of preferences create a gap between economic principles and policies supported by most economists vs. the general public. The authors note that this division probably is not unique to economics and they are correct. As Jayson Lusk notes, a few years ago research from the Pew Foundation identified a number of scientific issues for which there is a gap between views held by scientists and the public. 

So how does this play out? A colleague brought up a very important point. Rational irrationality implies that there are costs associated with irrational beliefs, and people are willing to hold on to certain world views given the costs are low. Since the costs associated with voting are much lower, and voters don't necessarily bear the full costs of their actions we would expect to see 'rational irrational' behavior more often in voting than we see with regard to food purchasing behavior. However, when we think about Satter's hierarchy the idea is that with increased incomes preferences for food become more abstract (related to politics, ideology, social status etc.). Consumers are willing to pay for that. However, for higher income consumers the share of food in the household budget is relatively small (Engel's Law). Hence the costs of 'irrationality' are minimal compared to what those costs would be for lower income consumers or at the bottom of Satter's hierarchy. This means that wealthier demographics and wealthier societies can afford to be 'rationally irrational' to some degree when it comes to actual food purchases as well as voting.

When you think about the opportunity this presents to food marketers in addition to special interest agendas like the non-GMO Project and US Right to Know combined with low cost voting and it’s a perfect storm.  As this influences food manufacturers and the regulatory environment, we begin to see an impact on food choices on the shelves. This impacts the way food is labeled, marketed, and perceived and the ingredients used or not used. This has impacts going all the way back the supply chain to the farm gate. These influences may come at the expense of more affordable options that may otherwise be produced with more efficient and sustainable technologies. This can exasperate issues related to food waste and food insecurity. Examples include Vermont's GMO labeling law, push back against new food technologies like the arctic apple, and the attempt in Brazil to ban glyphosate and related court cases here in the U.S.