Chocolate and Gold Coins

Saturday, February 25, 2006

1YAT: Free Food: Why Do Americans Love It?

Free Food: Why Do Americans Love It?:

If one were to take a box of week-old donuts—so stale that you would feel bad about feeding them to your pet—and place them on a tray and leave it in near the coffee maker in any office in America, those donuts will be devoured in just a few hours. Why does that happen? These people are not underfed (quite the opposite). These people wouldn’t pay even 5 cents for those donuts. These people might be making 6 figures and can afford gourmet donuts for 10 dollars apiece. Why would they even give these inferior goods a second look?

If they were using the donuts for bird feed or for creative sculptures or for paperweights, it might make some rational sense. After all, free stuff is free, and you can always throw it away later. But these people are eating this junk. This food might be free, but it isn’t costless. Extra calories either have to be burned with exercise or they add on to the flab around your waist. Why would people want to risk obesity for something so unappetizing?

My guess is that most people just don’t think about food in a way that is even remotely rational. They treat food as if the only cost associated with it is the monetary cost. This would make sense if we were 20 pounds underweight and desperately searching for food. But if you are already 20 or 50 or even 200 pounds overweight, the monetary cost of food is less important than the opportunity cost of food. The opportunity cost is simply that one will have to forgo some other food with that many calories or gain weight. It makes no sense to forgo a good meal to eat someone else’s garbage.

I have to admit to this insanity in my past. I used to love free food. But I’ve had a lot of time to consider this and other things while riding my exercise bike. Maybe I think too much.

I still don't have an explanation for this phenomenon. Is this an American thing or is it just as true in India and elsewhere? I believe Europeans have a more muture attitude about food.

I know that if there is food lying around, I tend to eat it. Or, as I tell my wife, such things, "tend to get eaten." My wife was intending to give boxes of chocolates to her parents in India. We forgot all of them in our refrigerator. We bought replacements in Germany on a layover. When we got home, I scarfed them down in less than a month. One day, my wife noticed that they were all gone. She was not happy.

I need to get back on that diet.


  • Hi Michael,

    It's probably due to an evolutionary vestige.

    I know that if there is food lying around, I tend to eat it.
    In the hunter-gatherer age, when our ancestors went after mammoths or whatever other creature they were fond of, probably not all hunting trips were fruitful. So whenever the hunt was successful, people might have tended to eat up as much as they could to last till their next good hunting day.

    As for free food, it's probably analogous to the neighbour inviting you to share the mammoth he hunted. This means:
    1. One less hunting effort for you, and
    2. Less exposure to the dangers attendant with hunting - from the man-eating sabre-tooths (sabre-teeth?) or other beasts.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:13 AM  

  • And:
    One day, my wife noticed that they were all gone. She was not happy.

    Women never went hunting. Only men did. :P

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:39 AM  

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