When Things Don’t Make Sense

There are some really strange and kooky things in our modern food system. Like, for example, the fact that there are 20-30 different kinds of jams and jellies in your local grocery store.

An easy career move any aspiring food pundit or food blogger can make is to write an article pointing out something weird or senseless like this (it's ridiculous for there to even *exist* 30 kinds of jam!), and then use that seemingly weird, senseless fact as self-congratulatory proof that "our food system is broken."

There was even a book about the "jam problem," at least in part: The Paradox of Choice, in which author Barry Schwartz[1] discusses many instances where the modern consumer environment offers what he sees as an inappropriately dizzying array of choices.

One way we can react to seemingly senseless or dumb things, like 30 kinds of jam, is to shake our fists and wonder why things are so stupid. Even better: if you wonder out loud to the people around you about how weird and dumb these things are, you can score bonus virtue-signalling points too![2]

Except that situations like the jam/jelly problem, as weird and dumb as they may seem, are cognitively tricky, trickier than they at first appear. And the first thing we need to do in cognitively tricky situations like this (uh, right after shaking our fist and pointing out how weird and dumb things are), is to consider one of our minds' worst habits: They like to form quick explanations for things. And worse still: our minds love quick explanations that neatly fit into our existing world view.

Well, it really is kind of ridiculous to have 30 kinds of jams and jellies. I can't see any other reason for it other than pure corporate greed.

Can you believe all of these jams and jellies? The store should use this space to sell healthy quinoa, or... or lentils! The food industry is trying to make us all fat.

First, let's start with a heuristic: Any relatively simple explanation that fits your worldview should be spontaneously rejected as unlikely. We'll see why shortly.

Second, just because something doesn't make sense to you doesn't mean it doesn't make sense. We are limited beings. We may not see the whole picture, or whatever system or set of phenomena we happen to observe might simply be opaque to us.

Third, any explanation (for anything) that comes to mind comes from our minds. As circular and definitional as that statement may sound, it hides an insight: when things come out of our minds, they're almost always dripping with solipsism, with our own narrow way of looking at the world.

We can see now that our brains, in just a couple of rapid-fire thoughts, have reached three distinct layers of cognitively suspect conclusions:

a) Our initial opinion, that it's ridiculous that there even exist 30 kinds of jam, is likely wrong.

b) Our explanation for why there are 30 kinds of jams and jellies is likely wrong too. Our brain leaped to it too quickly, and it too neatly fits our existing world view.

c) Finally, most of our ideas and explanations will suffer from some (possibly calamitous) degree of solipsism.

Sadly, we now have SCIENCE!!! piling on too, explaining to us why things are the way they are, and how they should be instead. Now, one would hope that credentialed experts will take their time to form explanations, using careful study design and even more careful testing methods. Their conclusions will be rigorous, correct, and not pre-fit to some pre-existing world view.

Hmmmm. Let's see if this is true about jams and jellies.

Well, as a matter of fact, one of the best known studies in the genre of choice paradox was the famous "jam study," where, conclusively, it was found that when customers were given far fewer choices, they buy more jam. A lot more: some ten times as many customers purchased jam when faced with six choices compared to customers faced with 24 choices.

So the idea that it was ridiculous and dumb to have 30 kinds of jam in the grocery store now had the blessing of evidence-based, credentialed SCIENCE!!! Intelligent consumers everywhere were given a clean, simple explanation, and that explanation had the added bonus fitting our world view: It really is stupid to have so many kinds of jams and jellies! Nobody needs all that.

Now let's step back a moment. The so-called "jam study" dates from the mid 1990s. That's more than twenty years ago. If it were actually that much more profitable to sell far fewer types of jam, don't you think grocery stores all over the world would have done so? If greed supposedly explains everything they do, you'd think they'd leap at the chance to put these credentialed scientific conclusions to work ...and make even more money.

Whenever we find ourselves at war with reality, we're given an opportunity to consider that we're wrong.

And it turns out the jam study (and Barry Schwartz for that matter) studied the wrong thing: Neither considered the fact that almost all jam-buying consumers have already long ago settled on a brand and type. They already know what they want, and if they don't find "their" jam, they don't buy at all.[3]

Thus the grocery store isn't actually subjecting consumers to a dizzying array of choice by carrying dozens of types of jams and jellies. The idea that there were "too many choices" was an error of solipsism--an error committed by Schwartz, by the designers of the fatally flawed study, and us!

When a store carries what seems like a "ridiculous" number of types of the same product, all these brands and types are not there for you or me. We buy the specific type we want, and so do all other customers. Collectively, these products, as long as they remain profitable for the store to sell, make up the what the store carries. The grocery store simply offers the brands and types that consumers have already settled on, and as a result, there are exactly the right number of types of jams and jellies.

In reality, what the "jam and jelly aisle" really represents--to Schwartz, to the jam study people, and to many consumers who consider themselves smarter than the marketplace in which they participate--is essentially a problem of aesthetics. We're all intelligent people, and it just doesn't make sense to have so many more jams and jellies than any of us as intelligent individuals would think was necessary.

To us, there are more varieties than there needs to be, it doesn't make sense, and somebody should do something about it. See how that works?

[1] Note that I do not intend the specific criticisms of this post in any way to take away from the many valuable insights in Schwartz's book. For me, one of the most profound insights I learned from The Paradox of Choice was the concept of "satisficing."

[2] The virtue-signalling here is nuanced and often difficult to see (all virtue-signalling must be non-obvious, by definition, in order to be truly effective). The mechanism here: by pointing out something dumb, one appears smart by (unstated) comparison. Look around carefully, and you will see all kinds of examples of this type of behavior. One common current example occurs when people point out how stupid (or inarticulate, or hotheaded, or treasonous, or gesticulatory, or racist, or orange, etc.) our President is. This particular example also shows how easy it is to virtue-signal without us realizing we're actually doing it.

[3] See this interesting article on a re-analysis of 99 studies of choice paradox, which uncovered explanations why you actually might want dozens of kinds of jam after all.


Unknown said...

Your point does apply I think to what we are familiar with/usually buy, but there is a point to be made for items we aren't familiar with/buy routinely.

E.g., For someone who doesn't buy jam/jelly, if they one day decided to do so, they would likely feel overwhelmed by the choices.

Karin said...

tl;dr People (and companies) generally don't do things that don't make sense from their perspective. If you think it doesn't make sense, your perspective is different.

btw this is why I shop at Aldi. :) Only 3-4 flavors of jam and only the one brand!

Marcia said...

Related / not related on the jam thing.

We recently vacationed to Colorado. We stopped at a grocery store for food to pack for lunches from our hotel room. I probably easily spent 15 minutes staring at the jams and peanut butters in the grocery store. So many choices! (One reason I prefer Trader Joe's, Sprouts, or Whole foods.)

It was inordinately tricky to find jam (strawberry) without high fructose corn syrup or fake sweetener. About as hard as it was to find peanut butter (smooth) that was just peanuts & salt. Even a lot of the brands with "natural" in their name had fillers.