Contradictions are nothing new in human behaviour. Sometimes it seems that the only defining feature of being human is that we live in a constant state of well-intentioned lunacy, believing strongly one thing whilst doing almost the exact opposite at the same time.
There are literally hundreds of great examples of this.
A great one I heard recently was the debate over organ donation cards.
It’s a subject that arouses exorcisms of rage in lots of people.
If you live in a country where you have to opt in, hardly anyone donates. People have long discussions and rows about how to get more people to donate and there are donation shortages. To opt in you have to submit a form.
Consent in these countries (including the UK and Germany) never gets above around 25% but mostly languishes at around 8-12% of the population. If you live in a country where you have to opt out you don’t have this problem of donation shortages. If you have to opt out, your organs automatically get donated. This is only prevented if you submit a form. Consent in these countries (including France and Austria) never gets lower than 85%, mostly however in these countries the figure is more like 99% of the population who consent. We can debate the moral implications from here until the next eternity but you’d miss the major defining indicator of human behaviour – the level of effort you have to put in to filling in a form.
If you live somewhere where you are required to fill in a form before becoming a donor, people universally don’t bother. I am a case in point. I would happily describe myself as pro organ donation. It even makes me angry when people argue that you shouldn’t donate organs. Am I the proud carrier of the organ donor card? In a word, nope.
I am deeply pro organ donation but deeply anti form filling.
The form is the difference, not the moral standpoint. I say one thing but I do another on the basis that it requires effort.
And this is over stuff that matters. Organ donation is heavy shit in comparison to the normal mundane crap we deal with on a daily basis. Sugar is one of those mundane things. Lots of TV, lots of media coverage, lots of instagrammers, lots of bloggers, all agreeing on one thing, sugar is bad, bad, bad.
As Super Hans once famously said on Peep Show,
“Tell you what, that crack is really moreish.”
And thus sugar has become our modern tyrant. Not quite as bad as crack – but maybe as bad as smoking. And like Super Hans we just can’t help ourselves.
Knowing is not the same as doing. We can be informed until the cows come home, we may do nothing if the cost to us now is too great. The cost in this instance is pleasure. I can enjoy something now or I can reduce my enjoyment now for some unspecified long-term effects that I may or may not notice.
So what happens? We end up being a bit good.
You think about having sugar a bit less. You do it practically like having one less sugar in your tea, but you still have your chocolate bar later because that real pleasure you get is worth far more to you now than no sugar is worth to you later on.
My husband and I were talking about this over a cup of tea and a biscuit the other night. He had two biscuits. I said he only needed one.
He said “yes but if I have two now then we will run out quicker and then I won’t be able to have any so really it is short-term pain for long-term gain”.
The next day, we bought more biscuits.
I work with people and I work with food brands and so I hear this stuff pretty much everyday. In the context of most people’s lives, thinking about sugar is infinitesimally inconsequential and utterly banal. Whether there are red warning signs, or traffic lights on the front of pack or whether brands have 20% less sugar or 20% more.
None of which is to say that brands shouldn’t behave better. It’s just that consumers won’t decide for you, consumers on the whole will decide what makes them happy right now.
Because that is people. Lovely, complicated, hypocrites that we are. We like the idea of being good, but we like the idea of tasty and easy better. Until someone makes the cost of being good less high – until good food is genuinely as tasty as bad food, reaching for that second biscuit will always win.