Sunday, June 12, 2011

HF and food labels

As I said in the previous post, I was volunteering at a food bank today. I discovered something very related to some research I have done in the past (and blog about frequently). Food labels.

My job today was running the tuna section. This may sound simple, but tuna is an inexpensive and nonperishable protein. Probably the least expensive and least perishable of all meat proteins. So it is very common for food banks. We get donations of canned tuna from individuals and grocery stores. I had at least 20 different kinds. There were brand names and store brands, there was oil-packed and water-packed; there was chunk light, chunk white, and solid white. There was regular and low-sodium. There were even a couple of onesies that were yellow-fin or some other special tuna species.

I had to keep them all separate because people came in with different needs. Children should stick with the chunk light because there is less mercury. Many of the elderly clients need low sodium because of diabetes, hypertension or some other medical condition. Those on diets wanted water-packed. Some asked for a brand name to make sure it was Kosher. So I had to get very familiar with the labels. Here are some things I discovered that are certainly not clear on the label.

There are 5oz and 7oz cans, which are hard to tell apart by size or by label.

The sodium ranges from 6% RDA to 10% RDA. Most of the cans that are actually labeled “low-sodium” are 6%. But so are most of the others. There was one can that was only 2% and didn’t have any low-sodium label. And there was one at 8% that said “not a low-sodium product.” So apparently the labeling has no rhyme or reason to it. You have the check the back if you care.

The serving sizes are smaller than they used to be. In the 90s, the regular size cans were all 6oz. Now they are all 5oz and the 7oz cans are labeled “larger cans” (although not clearly). The serving size is now two in a 5-oz can and three in a 7-oz can. It used to be two in a 6-oz can.

The number of calories is all different, which means some of the cans have more water and less tuna in them, even though the cans are the same size. Some brands are cheating you by putting in extra water. And the ones packed in oil assume you will drain the oil so that isn’t included on the nutrition label.

There were no labels about mercury anywhere. I happen to know that chunk light has less than solid white albacore so it’s better for kids. But if not for me, the other packers would have had no clue. You’d think this is even more important than most of the information they did label. Especially if the different between regular and low sodium is 2%

The libertarian in me doesn’t want to see this regulated by the government. If I was to eat high fat or high sodium tuna, I should be able to. But in order to make an informed choice, I need to be able to tell which is which and what is what. If a product as simple as canned tuna has this much variation in the label, I can’t imagine families trying to eat smart and buy the right foods for their kids. My 1990s research showed that people don’t look at detailed labels and rely on the front labels that say “low” this or “no” that. They don’t know exactly what it means, but if they need something to be low (or high), this is all they go by. Apparently, they are wasting their time. Either you have to study the detailed nutrition table or you are just wasting your time.

Emotion and long term memory

There is a good deal of research on the relationship between emotion and long term memory. I have blogged about this before. It came to mind today because I was volunteering at a food bank, which is my favorite thing to do. I would rather do this than take a vacation to an exotic island.

The research shows that looking back on past events (i.e. long term memory), what matters is the peak emotional feeling and the final emotional feeling of the event. So no matter if your vacation was a day, a week, or a month, if you had one really incredibly exciting activity and the last activity was enjoyable, you will have good long term memory of the vacation, even if the rest sucked. And the opposite is also true. If you had one really terrible disappointing activity and argued with the reception desk on checkout, you will have a very negative emotional connection to the memory, even if the rest of it was great.

Why did this come to mind while volunteering today? The last thing I did was grab a cup of coffee to go. They have one of those single serving machines. One of the other volunteers was working on that counter and she said in a really snitty voice “please throw your trash away this time.” I am usually good about throwing away trash and other basic consideration things and I didn’t remember leaving trash anywhere, but I will take her word for it that I had. Of course, there isn’t much trash in these things. All I could have left was the used coffee pack. Not exactly a mess. I am guessing there was something else behind her comment.

But it bothered me because I really value being considerate and polite. One of my favorite memories was being complimented on the way out of an airplane by the flight attendant who told me I was the most polite passenger she had ever served. And this was ten years ago. And since this was the last thing I did before I left, it ruined the day. On the way home, I was thinking about how happy the rest of the morning made me and wondered how such a little thing could have brought me down so far, so fast. Then I remembered the research and it dawned on me. I should have gone back in and loaded a few more delivery packages before leaving so that wouldn’t have been the last thing.

As usual with my posts, you have to get to the end to find out how to apply this. In both team management and in customer service management there are some insights you should draw from this. Imagine you are running a retail establishment. What is the last thing that the customer experiences on the way out? If it’s the cashier, then you want to hire/train/motivate cashiers to be very friendly, not just good at math. If you are managing a hotel, you want the checkout process to be exceptionally smooth.

For the team manager, you can focus on the peak activity. No matter how challenging and stressful a job is, if there is one really fun exciting event, let’s say once every month or so, then your employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention will go up. Think about something you can do, just every once in a while, that will bring a big smile to each employee’s face. Perhaps for one it could be simple recognition – a pat on the back and a “you really did a great job today.” For others, it might be being surprised with a pizza at the end of a long shift.

Sports Fan Science - Final

Well, I finished the book so here is the last sports fan science post. This highlights the differences between being a fan of the live sport, sports video games, and sports fantasy leagues. Some of the motivations are the same (need for achievement, need for social), but perhaps at a different magnitude. And others are true for only one kind of fan but not the others.

Fantasy sports leagues of all kinds have become incredibly popular – football and baseball are the biggest, but there is NASCAR, World Cup Soccer, golf, and lots more. Some of the differences in motivation may be obvious. People with a strong need for control get into fantasy sports because you actually manage the team. Also, people who enjoy problem solving, especially quantitative problem solving. Also, people with a high need for self-esteem and competition like fantasy sports because wins and losses are really your own. Some of the research finds that people try harder in leagues where they know the other people more than the anonymous leagues run by ESPN, Yahoo etc. And even just having your real name instead of an alias makes people try harder. It changes the need for aggression outlet too. You don’t get that through playing fantasy sports, but you do if there is an active discussion board. The trash talking that goes on in these boards is pretty astounding. Fantasy sports also change the effects of a need for socialization. With real sports, you can go into a random sports bar, find people with a hat or shirt from your team, and get an instant bond. You can’t do this with fantasy sports. But the bonds you develop with other “managers” in your league can get very strong.

But for people with high need for self-identity, fantasy sports are not good. You have to pick players from all different teams, even the ones that rival your favorite teams, if you want to be competitive. Some of the research shows that playing fantasy sports decreases the attachment you have to your favorite teams in real life. I suspect these last two are the reasons I never got into fantasy sports, despite my high need for control and love for problem solving.

Sports video games have also become very popular. Madden football is huge. And they come out with new versions every year to reflect new players and updated player statistics. These are popular with people with high need for achievement, aggression (it’s amazing how gory some of these games can be), and problem solving. It also changes the effects of socialization. You can play against other people, either in person or on-line. But you can also play against a computer by yourself and decrease the social aspect of it.

How are these differences relevant here, other than what I have previously posted about customized motivation? It shows that subtle differences in context also impact motivation and incentives. You can take a worker from a manufacturing environment, shift him/her to R&D or marketing department, and their needs change. Or if you switch industries, there can be fundamental changes in the motivations and incentives that work. Even just changing organizational cultures can have a huge impact. This is perhaps the primary reason for mergers and acquisitions to fail. We saw that when Time Warner bought AOL a decade ago.