Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Portion Size - If You Put It on the Table - You'll Eat It.

If you set out a large portion, chances are you will eat a large portion.  If you set out a smaller portion, you will eat only that.  The same thing works with money - portion size is a powerful normative cue.

We were staying in a resort in Key West and they had a nice restaurant that served (among other things) breakfast.   What amazed me was the size of the portions, which were enormous.  I tried to order "small" items, thinking that maybe these would be a more normal portion size.  So I ordered a breakfast sandwich on an English muffin, which should be about 400 calories about about 3" in diameter.  Instead, they brought an "English muffin" the size of a dinner plate with three eggs and seven slices of bacon in-between.

And like an idiot, I ate it all.   It is a human instinct not to "waste food" as our ancestors were in real danger of starving to death at any given moment.  So we tend to "clean our plate" of the portion served, regardless of size.

In France recently, they passed an ill-advised law forcing restaurants to recycle unused food.  It is an impractical idea as excess food is hard to take to a shelter (who wants 500 loaves of identical bread, not odds and ends) as I noted before.   Cooks do use excess food to make entrees and soups for the next day, if they are clever.  But some has to be thrown out - and there is a real danger to consumers if food is recycled due to food poisoning and the like.

So the French restaurateurs came up with a novel idea.  If you don't finish your entree, you are forced to take it home in a clamshell package.   The disgusting American habit of taking half your food home from a restaurant in a Styrofoam clamshell has hit France - by law.  I am sure many of these are rapidly discarded on the way home, too.   But since portion sizes in France are not as ridiculous as in the USA, I'll bet the number of clamshells leaving the restaurant is far less.

But this all got me thinking about portion size and normative cues and I have talked about this before.  If "everyone" is drinking a 500-calorie mocha-latte chi tea monstrosity at Starbucks, then you might think that this is "normal" and then wonder why your ass is so big after a year or two.  Normative cues are a way of selling us bad deals.  And in America, it is the 2,000 calorie entree, usually some meat product ladled on top of a football sized portion of cheap starch - rice, pasta, or mashed potatoes.

We think this is a "normal" portion and eat it all, and before long, you have an obesity epidemic.   If you put this on the table, you'll eat it until your stomach hurts.  I know this, because I do it all the time.  And each time, I ask myself later on exactly how much of an idiot I could possibly be.

On the flip side, if you have a smaller portion, you may eat that and think, "That was just fine, I don't need any more."   If you set out a portion that is normal sized, you eat that and are happy.   For example, if we make a pizza and set out the entire pie on the cutting board, well, we will eat the entire pizza (about 1800 calories each) while watching re-runs of Arrow on Netflix (or some Nazi documentary, which sums up their library).

On the other hand, if I put half the pizza in the freezer or refrigerator to have for lunch the next day, we eat less - a "normal" and appropriate portion.  If you put it on the table, you'll eat it.  That seems to be how we are programmed.

And I thought about this and thought that this applies to finances as well.  If you have $100 in your wallet, you'll spend it.  If you have $1000 in your checking account, you'll write checks totaling that amount.  If you have a $5000 credit limit on your credit card, guess how much your balance will be?
Yea, yea, yea, self control - it's bullshit.   Maybe as we get older this theory might make sense.  But I can tell you than when I was younger, money on hand was money to be spent.  Credit lines were there to be rung up to their limits.   And by leaving that money "on the table" it was spent - or borrowed.

Putting money away - squirreling it away - as in a 401(k) or other long-term account that comes out of your paycheck before you see it, it money you don't "see" and thus do not spend.   We see money on the table, and we spend it.

And people do this.  Like goldfish, they expand to the size of the fishbowl they are placed into.   They get a raise, and they buy a bigger car and a bigger house, and the friendly Real Estate Agent or Car Salesman tells them how much they should spend or what "someone in your position" should be spending - the maximum amount, of course, that you can borrow.

So we gorge ourselves at the buffet of life, spending all we make and borrowing more, when the actual portion size we really need and should have is far smaller.

Taking money off the table is one good way to avoid over-consuming.   Get rid of multiple credit cards with high limits.  Put money into savings in a way that it is hard to get at, right away.  Don't keep huge balances in your checking account as a temptation to spend.

Yes, self-control is a fine thing.  But it is an illusion.  Sometimes we need to discipline ourselves by tricking ourselves.   Leave a small portion on the table and a small portion in your wallet - and oddly enough, that will be all you consume - and you may be content with that.

EDIT:  This same idea can be applied to consumer pricing.  If "everyone" is paying $20 to go to a movie, we think it is "normal" to pay that amount.  Ditto for cable bills, cell phone bills, restaurant bills, hotel bills, and the like.  We are lulled into a sense on complacency by the norms around us.  It is only when shockingly smaller prices are offered (for example, by China) that we start to question our norms.  But more about that later.