“French Fries” Our biology and the fault in our utility functions

I step out of my house and ‘beep, beep’, unlock my little red hatchback.

I stop in my tracks. A whiff of comfort hits me in my face. I inhale a heavenly aroma, trying to place the name of the food object, multitasking with turning on my ride’s air-conditioning and answering my coffee partner’s call. My brain refuses to dedicate mental bandwidth[1] to answering this question, and focuses on reversing the car out of the porch and out on the street, partly because I just had late lunch and the stomach has not transmitted the ‘hungry’ signal to the brain. I turn on the radio and quickly finish my call, pacifying my date that I will be only 15 minutes late (in Islamabad that is a mortifying crime because that is 50% of total travel time). Enjoying one of the popular grooves of the season on the radio, I dally my way to the coffee shop. By the time I reach my destination, battling the road rage and the looming migraine (result of clashing temperatures of the air-conditioning and my freshly washed hair), hunger is as far from me as Kashmir from Karachi[2].

Conversation flows and after a bit of catching up, I become aware of the snooty glances of the waiters in the coffee shop. Wary of customers taking more time on their space than their orders, the men dressed in black and white, make all the effort to make eye-contact with me. Thoroughly enjoying my conversation, I feel I have played the furtive glancing game long enough. Reluctant to dedicate my brain cells to making a decision on what I wanted to eat or drink, my behavior had obviously become suspicious. With a weary ‘heart’ (more specifically used up mental bandwidth), I beckon the server to take my order. Scanning the menu at least ten times, I remain undecided because I remain unfocused. One part of my brain focusing on the details of the conversation, the other trying to figure out what I want. My system 2[3] is visibly engaged so it falls upon system 1 to take the fall for both of is.

The 11th scan of the menu leaves me dissatisfied for I see nothing that would ‘feel’ right. Continuing the conversation and still trying to conjure up a name for what I ‘feel’ like having, I re-create the battle of Panipat[4] in my mind. Suddenly, it hits me and a passionately exclaim, “French Fries”.

“Would you be able to make some French fries? It doesn’t say on the menu but I thought I’d ask.”

The server smiles at me painfully, yet replies in a glorious “Yes”.

Twenty minutes later, I order another bowl. Two cups of tea later, I finally finish the conversation and head towards another gathering of friends. More tea and rounds of conversation, as is typical in the Capital of my beloved country. It can be contested, but I do believe this is the conversation capital of the country too. New people join the conversation and more tea is ordered. A few say they feel peck-ish and wouldn’t mind a snack. The idea is rather appealing and I return to scanning the menu again. A friend of mine pipes rather enquiringly, as if asking permission or seeking validation, “Can I order fries?”

“Most certainly you can Madam”

“Then I WILL order fries”

A gleam of mischief spreads over her face. I cannot help ask why.

“I have been thinking about fries since the entire evening, all through the hike and all through the drive to this tea shop.”

This did not seem like an odd statement. My friends and I have openly acknowledged our fantasy-oriented relationship with food. However, when I ask her why she has been thinking of this, her reply lights something up in my mind.

“When I was leaving home, I caught a whiff of someone making fries in my neighborhood and since then I have been craving good, spicy, French fries.”

It all suddenly made sense. System 1 was at work. It was making the senses go awry. When our System 2 was distracted by more cognitively challenging tasks, System 1 had its way and told the brain it wants the ‘unhealthy’ dose of carbs that got programmed into the menu of wants, inspired by a few aromatic experiences earlier in the day.

When I ordered fries on the café earlier that day, I had fallen prey to the “illusion of choice”, comfortable in the idea that I was ordering something I wanted. Refusing to select from the menu offered to me, I had reinforced my ‘want’ by choosing something that was not available on the paper in front of me. Little attention did I pay to the impact that an environmental stimuli had on me, long before I entered the decision framework of an economic decision.

There are numerous instances daily, where our decisions are affected by factors that we are not consciously aware off in the moment. In retrospect we may evaluate the efficacy of our decisions in many different frameworks, however, while making the decision, we are seldom aware of the exhaustive list of ‘influencers’ in our decision making. Does that mean our preferences can be influenced by unpredictable factors? Do the existing models of choice and preferences take into account the possibility of such factors? Is it then justifiable to assume transitivity[5] and consistency of choices according to the utility theory?[6] Do we need a more realistic model of preferences and utility now that we are becoming more aware of the framework in which humans beings make choices and recognize the susceptibility of human preferences?




[1] The term is taken from the book, “Scarcity” by Sendhil Mullianathan and Eldir Shafir. It refers to the capacity of the brain to engage in various cognitive exercises including thinking, feeling and making decisions. The idea is that mental bandwidth is also a scarce resource and so the economic principles of resource allocation apply to this as well. Mental bandwidth is the most valuable resource among resources and therefore must be used with care, keeping in mind that the opportunity costs are higher than in other resources.

[2] Two cities/places in Pakistan that are on opposite sides of the land region longitudinally. Kashmir is in the mountains in the north and Karachi is near the cost in the south.

[3] This idea comes from the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” authored by Daniel Kahneman. System 1 is the intuitive mind which functions on memory and experience. System 2 is the critical thinker that evaluates facts and logic to process information. This is a simplification to explain the different tendencies of human brain to process information. System 1 is active most of the time and allows the System 2 to acquire important information while it manages the other functions for which the brain is required.

[4] A place 60 miles north of Delhi where several iconic battles were fought in the Indian Subcontinent.

[5] Transitivity is one of the assumptions economists make while determining or modelling preferences that deduces facts about choices. So if Tom prefers A over B and B over C, then Tom is rational if he always prefers A over C.

[6] The utility theory is an economic theory that aims to predict or model how an individual would proceed to make decisions related to their economic well-being. The decisions relate to choosing a bundle of goods for consumption.


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