Professor Michael Marlow: Can Behavioral Economics Combat Obesity?

Economics professor Michael Marlow’s latest paper on the effectiveness of government intervention in the fight against our growing waistlines, “Can Behavioral Economics Combat Obesity?,” was recently published in Regulation magazine.


Co-authored by Sherzod Abdukadirov, Marlow’s paper was the focus of George Will’s widely syndicated opinion column in the Washington Post on August 22, 2012: “Why Government Needs a Diet.”

Earlier in the summer, professor Marlow was featured in “Obesity in America, to Win We Have to Lose Government” on ReasonTV. “The research shows that we haven’t been very good at trying to, through government, control obesity,” says Marlow.

Professor Marlow shifted his focus in 2012, starting off the year with the publication of two papers focused on government intervention in the fight against obesity in the United States.

In the first paper, “FAT CHANCE: An Analysis of Anti-Obesity Efforts,” Marlow and co-author Sherzod Abdukadirov critically examine whether government policymakers can improve social welfare by implementing policies designed to remedy systematic mistakes made by individuals. Such policymakers rely on the findings of behavioral economics research—a rapidly growing discipline that studies individuals’ systematic biases—to justify “nudges” or “shoves” that steer individuals toward choices more in sync with their best interests. In effect, the belief is that they can exploit individuals’ departures from rationality in ways that correct what the policymakers view as irrational individual mistakes. Marlow and Abdukadirov focus on efforts to lower obesity prevalence and argue that government intervention in individual food and lifestyle choices is often misguided and too easily justified on the assumption that elected officials are better informed than the individuals they seek to guide. In addition to taxes, interventions believed to steer individuals toward leaner bodies—and thus improved lives—include regulations requiring calorie counts on restaurant menus and vending machines; bans on children’s toys at fast food restaurants; bans on soda and unhealthy food at schools; and bans on new fast food restaurants. Marlow and Abdukadirov demonstrate that intervention is often ineffective in remedying individual failures and that, in some cases, its actions are counterproductive in producing the desired result.

In another paper, Marlow and co-author Alden F. Shiers (Economics Professor Emeritus for the Orfalea College of Business) examine the hypothesized link between obesity and fast food by examining data on all U.S. states between 2001 and 2009 in their recently published “The Relationship Between Fast Food and Obesity.” The previous literature on this issue leaves open the question of whether fast food causes weight gain, whether overeating causes fast food restaurant availability or some combination of the two. After controlling for other factors that may influence obesity prevalence, they find no support for the view that fast food is a significant causal factor behind the substantial weight gain exhibited by the U.S. population.

To view Professor Marlow’s publications from 2011, click here.