A Schoolteacher Who Ate American School Lunches For A Year

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon one of the most interesting blogs I have seen in a long time: Fed Up With Lunch. The blog is about a school teacher, who happened to forget her lunch one day and had to buy a school lunch, discovered the horrific quality of the food being served to the children.

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When I visited, it turned out she had just released a book which I bought immediately since I had seen a few episodes of Jamie Oliver’s School Lunches and Jamie’s Food Revolution (two shows focused on improving school nutrition in the UK and US respectively). This book seemed even better, because Mrs. Q (now revealed as Sarah Wu) took on the task to eat school lunch everyday for a full year, documenting all the meals that were served through writing and photos.

This is an absolutely amazing idea, because Mrs. Q overcomes the social projection bias, allowing her to understand the plight that school children are facing. Often times in marketing and psychology we talk about social projection bias (termed false consensus effect in earlier research). It is widely documented in social psychology that we really do not understand others due to an inherent bias to map our own experiences and preferences onto others. It happens everywhere.

In 1977, Ross, Greene and House conducted a classic study that exposed the false consensus effect where they gave participants four stories and asked, between two courses of action, what the protagonists would do at the end of it. They were asked to estimate the percentage of their peers who choose those answers. Then they were given a few distracter survey questions and then asked to choose the answer for themselves. The results showed that those who chose course of action A for a certain story gave higher percentages for choice action A in all four scenarios!

Our first year marketing students at Harvard Business School also show this bias. The marketing course always starts off with a marketing survey asking students to fill out a survey with questions that test certain preferences or behaviors (e.g. How many times have you ever posted a video on YouTube? or Rate how much you like to eat sushi?) Then we ask the students to answer the exact same questions but to mentally step into the shoes of everyone else in the class. So what would your colleagues say on average about the Youtube question or the sushi question? We did this with a variety of questions and ALL of them showed a systematic bias– a bias to estimate other people’s answers closer to their own. People who rated higher preferences for sushi estimated that the class had higher preferences for sushi. People who gave higher numbers for the youtube question estimated that the class had higher number of uploads than those who gave lower numbers for themselves. This makes sense that in a situation of no information, people use themselves as a data point to launch their estimations BUT this bias can be detrimental to fully grasping the magnitude of the plight of others like the students who eat horrible school lunches everyday.

There are two ways to overcome the social projection bias:

1)      You do it the old fashioned way, the way social ethnographers have done it for years. Go into a community and become one of the people you wish to study. Do what they do and integrate so that you can fully step into their shoes. This is the approach Mrs. Q has taken.

2)      But if you are male and you would like to understand how females feel when they head into a Sephora store, you can’t possibly step into the shoes of a female! This is where marketing research comes in. This can take the form of people reporting to you what you are asking them OR even better, you are gathering information about their behavior without them even realizing it since what people say can often times be counter to what they actually do.

This bias is so troubling, that it has enabled us to form double standards for the food we eat and the food our children eat at school. Many people wrote to Mrs. Q over the course of the year inquiring about her health eating all this junk food at school… I found myself sympathizing for her misery as well. However, Mrs. Q responded with such a powerful statement that I realize how psychologically blind we are towards people unlike us. She said something along the lines of: the kids are eating this everyday so why are you worrying about me. I did not even feel any sort of concern towards the kids’ wellbeing until Mrs. Q mentioned it. Thank you Mrs. Q.

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