Calorie Labels, Screen-time Labels

One of the most important findings of behavioral psychology is Daniel Kahneman’s idea of WYSIATS, what you see is all there is. If something is salient, it’s important. If something is hidden, it may as well not exist.

But this tendency comes in contact with any ‘easy’ choice, like what to eat.


On the one hand salience heightens importance. On the other, we love good food.

In the battle between salient calories on restaurant menus and ‘mmm…barbeque‘ who takes the cake?

Humans will adapt. New Yorkers got used to the calorie displays and slowly ignored them. This is why commutes always suck and houses loses their shine. We get used to things that are presented in the same way (your home) but notice all the novel ways things can be good or in the case of a commute, bad.

Incentives work, to a point. When school children were offered a health snack about 15% chose it. Offer an incentive though, and 75% of kids choose the snack. This effect degrades over time. It works for adults too.

People trade-off. When researchers looked at the buying habits at Starbucks, customers reduced the food they purchased once calorie labels were on the menu but made only the slightest adjustments when it came to their drinks.

People like low numbers. At a cinema, the concessions operators varied the prices of drinks. Sometimes they were the traditional S/M/L pricing. Sometimes they were priced traditionally and per-ounce [i.e. $1.29 (4 cents per ounce)]. People purchased more large sodas when the price-per-ounce was included. This helps explain our family’s Fro-Yo receipt.

Nutritional labels is a logical approach. It’s non-alchemic approach. And it doesn’t work.

I got hungry writing this post. Not from all the talk about the food but to think about all the effort in legislating, designing, crafting, installing, asking, updating, cooking, and serving this idea. It’s a lot, mostly for no effect. Alchemy, on the other hand, is all about creating value from low-cost.


Instead we can think of an idea Paul English had during his time at Kayak. English noticed that a lot of people paid a lot of money for a lot of watch without a lot of features. He realized watches mostly do two things: tell time and signal status.

Why not then, make a watch that does both but signals in a unique way? What if Swatch made a purple watch which cost thousands of dollars which were donated to charity?

Two birds, one stone.

A similar idea might to create a water bottle signaler. In the south, Yeti cups act in this way like this. In college Nalgene waters bottles did something to this effect too. We have no idea if this signaling approach will work but for the cost it’s certainly worth testing.

This post started with an idea that that food calorie labels and screen time notifications  have similar effects, minimal. There’s not much research, but that seems to be about right.

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