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Paternalism and food choices

Evaluating paternalism consists in comparing, in an individual, decisions they take for themselves and those taken for another person. In terms of diet, many people make choices for themselves that differ from those they make for others.  An observation that invites us to reconsider the impacts of public policies in the field of nutrition.

Compote de fruits.. © INRA, MAITRE Christophe
Updated on 09/06/2016
Published on 01/14/2016

Issues of food consumption occupy an important place in public health debates because of the significant links between different types of consumption and chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, or cardiovascular risks.  Public health authorities try to promote a sustainable and balanced diet by means of different campaigns, such as the national Nutrition and Health Programme (PNNS) or a tax on liquid preparations for soft drinks, commonly known as the soda tax.  Paternalism, or the taking of decisions to guide or even force citizens, forms the implicit foundation for regulatory interventions in markets.  This issue is clearly important with respect to children, whose food choices are largely influenced by their family environment.

Despite frequent arguments justifying or blaming paternalism, there is little evidence which shows how people (the decision-makers) take decisions for others, or how the beneficiaries of paternalism (recipients) react to the decisions that have been taken for them.

INRA scientists chose to study paternalism in the context of an experimental framework by comparing, for each participant, the decisions taken for himself and those taken for another person, whether that person was anonymous or a member of his family.

Deciding for yourself or for others….

Focusing first of all on the consequences of decisions taken by anonymous people, the scientists studied how the choices between a food with a health dimension (apples) and a food relatively less good for health (chocolate biscuit) were influenced by the respective roles of the participants (decision-makers or recipients).  This experiment was carried out in some 300 people recruited in the USA (Stillwater, Oklahoma) and France (Dijon). After supplying information on the nutritional content of the foods, some of the decision-makers made healthier choices for the recipients than they did for themselves, notably in France.  On the other hand, before receiving the information, the recipients had made healthier choices for themselves than those they expected from the decision-makers.  Finally, more than 75% of the recipients preferred their own choices over those decided for them by the paternalists.

The scientists were also able to demonstrate the loss of well-being that might be experienced by the recipient because of the choice imposed upon him. When the choices of the decision-maker differed from the preferences and choices of the recipient, the latter suffered from a loss of well-being or an excess, at least in the short term.  This loss, which could be measured empirically, may play a hitherto unknown role in evaluating the opportunity of public policies, which are often motivated by behavioural economics.  Thus decision-makers choosing for others may initiate policies regarding nutritional information that would not have been chosen if based solely on the choices of the recipients.

… is more complicated than it seems!

The team then looked at the consequences of decisions taken by members of the family, examining the choices made by children and by their mothers.  The choices focused on snack-related foods.  This experiment was carried out in 111 mother-child teams, recruited in Dijon.  Each mother and each child chose separately, for themselves and for the other family member, between foods that were relatively healthy (compotes) and foods that were relatively unhealthy (chocolate bars).

Many of the participants made choices for themselves that differed from those they made for the other member of their family.  Before information on the nutritional content of the foods was revealed, 51.3% of the mothers proved to be "indulgent" towards their children, choosing fewer healthy foods for them than for themselves.  On the other hand, 67% of the children proved to be "paternalistic" towards their mothers, selecting more healthy products for her than for themselves.  The communication of nutritional messages had a significant influence of the choices of both mothers and children in favour of healthy products, both for themselves and for others.  Participants who proved to be "paternalistic" before the nutritional messages were communicated had a significantly greater chance of increasing their choice of healthy products for themselves once the messages had been revealed.  This "paternalism" towards a family member demonstrated the impact of family ties on the efficiency of nutritional policies.

More generally, these results indicate the need for a more detailed analysis of the impacts of public policies in the area of nutrition, with particular focus on parent-children relationships.

These efforts, and their results, was one of the highlights of work by the Versailles-Grignon Research Centre during 2015.

Find out more

Marette S. et al. 2016. Choosing for Others. Applied Econ. 48: 2093.

Lusk J. et al. 2014. The Paternalist Meets His Match. Appl. Econ. Perspect. Pol. 36: 61. doi: 10.1093/aepp/ppt031.

Marette S. et al. 2014. Impact d’une information nutritionnelle sur le choix de goûters pour soi ou pour autrui : les enfants sont-ils plus « paternalistes » que leur mère ? Nutrition clinique et Métabolisme 28 : S50. doi : doi:10.1016/S0985-0562(14)70616-8.