Friday, July 12, 2013

The Appearance Trap

I’ve written before about how better decisions occur when we use critical thinking and avoid being swept away by our emotions.  Even searching for rational justification for feelings can be dangerous and costly.  Too often Americans let appearance, visual appeal, overly influence decisions whether they be about buying, hiring or making social judgments.  Evidence of this shortcoming abounds as cute kittens, happy babies and curious bears go viral on the Internet (even on national news), squeezing out substantive issues and real news.  Here are a few more recent examples.

Someone drove past an Iowa farm and snapped pictures of what have been dubbed fluffy cows.  As they hit Facebook and other social media, the farmer who owned the cows saw it as an opportunity to promote the “great people and cattle in the beef industry."  But others are worried “that the focus on ‘fluffy cows’ could backfire,” especially when responses on Reddit and Twitter sounded like this:  "That's too cute to kill" and "That almost makes me want to become a vegetarian."  Cattle are not pets and not comparable to teddy bears, but see how we are swayed by appearance.

A second series of stories focuses on the appearance of our food.  The first tells how some companies are moving toward more natural looking processed food, eliminating the perfect shapes of machine-cut meat for a sloppier, handmade look.  “Americans still love their fast food and packaged snacks, but they're increasingly turning their noses up at foods that look overly processed.”  Less perfect looking food is seen as more natural, wholesome and authentic.  See again the influence of appearance alone.

Beyond this issue of manufacturers trying to trick us with these tactics, grocery stores respond to our purely visual preferences by becoming increasingly fussy about the appearance of their produce.  “Many retailers insist that fruits and veggies meet exact cosmetic criteria, including specifications for size, color, weight, and blemish level — leading to culling and incorporating waste as part of doing business.  The article emphasizes that many are beginning moves to eliminate this waste, but still, according to the USDA:  “Food waste in the United States is estimated at roughly between 30 to 40 percent of the food supply."  Department of Agriculture estimates supermarket losses at $15 billion per year in fruits and vegetables alone.  Much of the overall waste can be attributed to appearance issues either at the store or at home after the purchase.

This reaction to appearance is quite predictable.  When I first saw the news story about the USDA agreeing to inspect a horse slaughtering operation in New Mexico on June 28, I expected a reaction from horse lovers.  In less than 3 days a lawsuit had been filed to stop it.

Horsemeat cannot be sold as food in the US and horses cannot be slaughtered without a USDA inspection.  Congress stopped funding the inspections in 2007.  Horses, however, may be exported as nearly 159,000 were last year.  At that point they may be slaughtered and sold for consumption in countries that allow it or used as feed in zoos.  One opponent argues:  "Horses have been our companions, fought battles with us, worked sun-up to sundown by our sides ... we will not abandon them now."   That’s pretty sweet and squishy and it reeks of the “Bambi Factor," but it’s not an economic argument. 

It’s not even a caring argument.  If horses cannot be slaughtered and are not healthy enough for export, or if the owners just can’t afford to keep them, what happens?  This source tells us that after the 2007 artificial ban (through the cutoff of funding) “the Government Accounting Office of Congress did a study that suggested horses were suffering more with the ban than without it.” 

So where does this love of horses leave us?  It leaves us in the same place as the preference for pretty produce and cute cows.  Gaps in critical thinking, leading with our hearts instead of our heads, result in waste, suffering and extra costs – but in our innocence, we are left feeling like we have done the right thing.

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