How do we get from causes to decisions?
In 2008, New York City passed a law requiring chain restaurants with more than 15 locations to prominently post calorie counts on their menus. The rationale behind the law is that consuming high-calorie foods leads to obesity and other health consequences, but unlike the manufacturers of packaged foods, restaurants rarely provide nutritional information. If people knew how many calories they’re consuming, then they would be able to change their behavior. However, studies in New York and other cities since a similar policy became nationwide have found little evidence that the laws have had this effect.1
Why is that? Menu labeling policies assume that people will notice the information, that they are underestimating calorie counts, that they know how to interpret and use calorie information, and that the policy will have the same effect at all types of chain restaurants. Not only was there not a dramatic drop in how many calories people purchased, but in some cases they purchased even more calories on average than before.2 This can happen if people are overestimating calories, which they may be prone to do when dieting or evaluating unhealthy foods.3 Then the true information may come as a pleasant surprise and result in ordering higher-calorie foods.
Consumption may also increase, or at least not decrease, if people do not know how to use the numbers. For calorie counts to change behavior, we must assume that consumers can ...