Potato Chips and Choice Architecture

By Nathaniel Counts

If, out of concern for public health, the government banned potato chips today, a lot of people would get very angry.  Only some of these people would be angry because they missed potato chips.  For most it would be the principle of the thing – the government should not interfere with our autonomy to eat whatever we want, as long as it does not harm others, and some days this will include potato chips.  I would posit that the autonomy at issue here is a narrow understanding of autonomy, and one that we should be suspicious of.

Imagine yourself in the biggest Costco in the world.  It has every food in existence and they are all placed equidistant from you, and you may survey the scene and choose whatever food you most desire and then eat it.  This would be true autonomy.  The world we live in, however, is deeply constrained and we should question how meaningful our autonomy is.

In reality, every time someone who came to the Costco before you made a purchase, the store owners moved the product a little bit closer to you, and manufacturers began shipping more variants of it.  The decisions that determined the composition of your commercial world were made over hundreds of years by individuals with no understanding of health – diet and exercise, hypertension and heat disease all being foreign concepts until recently.  Today potato chips, in all their variety, take up quite a lot of shelf space, and healthful foods are hard to come by.

Individuals might argue that they are making a legitimate tradeoff – health for pleasure – in buying the potato chips.  Some may be, but I suspect most are buying potato chips simply because it is there and they would choose health if they were truly making rational decisions.  Even if it is not a legitimate tradeoff, preserving autonomy could still be its own sort of good.  It is not clear to me why allowing previous consumer choice control our decisions is preserving autonomy.

Let us compare two regimes.  In the first, the government regulates the available food to ensure that healthful choices are available and promoted.  In the second, every individual, past and present, votes on what choices should be available and stores stock these (we assume that food manufacturers are mostly agnostic as to which foods they produce – they have no vested interest in pushing potato chips over sweet potatoes, aside from profit margins).  We live in this second regime.  It may have a democratic feel to it, but it is still majoritarian control over your autonomy, and indeed mostly the dead controlling the living.  The first only feels like more interference with autonomy because it is centrally planned, but it seems absurd to reject intelligent planning over the effects of unintentional and piecemeal change simply because it is not planned, when everyone would be better off with the former.

If individuals were to actually exercise their autonomy, given what we know now about health, standing inside of the infinite Costco, individuals may actually consistently choose healthier food, or at least different food.  The free market does not give you what you most want in the world per se, if gives you what other people think you want, or what other people feel like giving you.  If potato chips were something found in the state of nature and the government was denying you access, the claim about limiting autonomy would make some sort of sense, but as it stands now, it seems confused to me.



Nathaniel Counts was a Student Fellow during the 2013-2014 academic year. At the time, he was in his third year at Harvard Law School. He was interested in the role of law and lawyers in the treatment of mental health issues, with a focus on behavioral disorders, including intersections with the criminal justice system. He was also interested in the use of a right to health care in human rights lawyering and international development. Nathaniel graduated from Johns Hopkins with a major in biology and a minor in entrepreneurship and management. Prior to law school, he studied creative writing at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. His past research focused on the federal government’s response to marijuana legalization, including recommendations for public health initiatives; he published an article on this subject in the Gonzaga Law Review in 2014.

3 thoughts to “Potato Chips and Choice Architecture”

  1. Interesting post Nathaniel. It’s great to have people thinking about the big picture implications of rationality and autonomy. As someone who is studying the ethics of nudging and is an avid potato-chip fan, it hits close to home. I have a few comments:

    (1) While I like the Costco examples, I’m not sure I agree with your conception of the market. The market is a living thing, constantly responding to the ebb and flow of consumer tastes and preferences. The market today isn’t a reflection of preferences from hundreds of years ago, but a reflection of today’s preferences. That’s why things like the telegraph don’t exist anymore and why smart phones and drones do. There is demand for it. It’s not enough just to create supply of something, there has to be demand, otherwise the product disappears. We eat potato chips today because on some level we like them. The inventors thought we would like them, and it turned out they were correct. There are countless stories of this going the other way.

    (2) I also think that “control” is too strong a word for talking about previous consumer preferences and “majoritarian control over autonomy”. Sure what most people want shapes some of the choices available to us, but in an ideal market, everyone’s tastes, no matter how eclectic, would be catered to so long as they were profitable. The majority certainly doesn’t “control” our autonomy – we don’t only have one product that the majority wants and the minority get stuck with it.

    (3) Your example of true autonomy in Costco isn’t quite accurate. True autonomy isn’t having every product in the world available to us. It’s having the products we WANT available to us. So if I wanted potato chips but only had access to countless varieties of apples, I still wouldn’t be free. If I want potato chips and someone wants to sell me chips and you take that option away by regulation, then I am less free.

    (4) There are other instrumental concerns with your ideal world of “intelligent planning”: it relies on someone that we all agree on being “intelligent” to determine what is “healthy”. It would also defend a world where there should only be one product determined by technocrats: whatever is the healthiest food should be the only one we are allowed to consume. No? Your hypothetical planned system also presupposes that healthful choices are more meaningful than non-health choices. That is, we’ve decided that health is paramount to autonomy or pleasure or whatever other characteristics, potato chips may embody. I’m not everyone would agree with that.

    Anyway, you’ve offered a great thought experiment here and I really appreciate the opportunity to respond.

    Blake Chapman

  2. Thank you for your comments!

    To respond to points 1 through 3, I suppose I see autonomy limited in a very real way because, even though the market is supposed to give us what we want as long as it is profitable, what it is already providing has at least a non-negligible impact on what it is that we want, and what the market is already providing when we enter the scene as consumers is of course something we have no control over. I see the existing goods shaping consumer preferences in three ways: (1) Sometimes we are just hungry for a snack and potato chips are there and we end up purchasing it, even though if presented more choices we may select a healthier option; (2) If, for example, I was hungry for papadum, I would accept potato chips, which are more accessible as a result of others’ choices, as a lesser alternative if I did not have the time and energy to find an Indian grocery store, even if I would have enjoyed this more and it would have been healthier for me; and most importantly, (3) The food available will have a social signalling affect, such that in some instances we will want things simply because we know that others want them, which will be evident to us by its market share, even if they taste worse to us and are less healthy, i.e. a bad trade-off. “Control” is likely too strong of a word, although I do believe it is difficult to disentangle what tastes so good it is worth the negative health effects from what we want only because the market suggests it to us.

    To respond to point 4, I agree it is problematic. I believe that the concerns presented in the post only justify a somewhat more limited intervention by technocrats: regulating to ensure that unhealthful options are not so overrepresented that it becomes difficult for an individual to make a healthy choice and exercise her autonomy in what I see as a more meaningful way.

    Thank you again for your comments, it was a pleasure being engaged on this topic.

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