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Reconciling Psychology with Economics - Obesity, Behavioral Biology, and Rational Overeating

  • Trenton Smith

    ()

    (School of Economic Sciences, Washington State University)

Reconciling Psychology with Economics: Obesity, Behavioral Biology, and Rational Overeating Abstract: The modern phenomenon of obesity is an archetypal example of a behavior whose explanation simultaneously falls within the purview of psychology, economics, and the biological sciences. While psychologists and advocates of public health have long viewed overeating as a weakness or disease in need of treatment, economists have pointed out that "like any other consumer behavior" choices about diet and exercise can be viewed from the perspective of rational decision theory, subject to the influence of variation in price and income but not necessarily as a problem in need of a solution. Recent advances in our understanding of the physiological mechanisms by which genes influence behavior in modern socioeconomic environments have begun to point the way to a resolution to this debate. Drawing inspiration from the scientific literature on the neuroendocrinology of energy homeostasis, this paper reviews the empirical determinants of obesity in light of the biologist’s notion that humans and other animals evolved the ability to store body fat as an optimal response to the presence of starvation risk. This approach yields a powerful theoretical foundation, capturing such features of obesity as dynamic inconsistency, genetic variation, susceptibility to pharmaceutical intervention, and variation by season, socioeconomic status, and degree of financial security. It also provides a framework for reconciling the conflict between behavioral (descriptive) and neoclassical (prescriptive) economics.

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File URL: http://faculty.ses.wsu.edu/WorkingPapers/Reconciling_TGSmith.pdf
File Function: First version, 2006
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Paper provided by School of Economic Sciences, Washington State University in its series Working Papers with number 2006-4.

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Length: 44 pages
Date of creation: May 2006
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:wsu:wpaper:tgsmith-1
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Web page: http://faculty.ses.wsu.edu/

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  1. Barnes Michael G & Smith Trenton G., 2009. "Tobacco Use as Response to Economic Insecurity: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth," The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 9(1), pages 1-29, November.
  2. W. Pesendorfer & F. Gul, 1999. "Temptation and Self-Control," Princeton Economic Theory Papers 99f1, Economics Department, Princeton University.
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  5. Smith Trenton G. & Stoddard Christiana & Barnes Michael G, 2009. "Why the Poor Get Fat: Weight Gain and Economic Insecurity," Forum for Health Economics & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 12(2), pages 1-31, June.
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  9. Trenton G. Smith, 2004. "The McDonald’s Equilibrium. Advertising, empty calories, and the endogenous determination of dietary preferences," Social Choice and Welfare, Springer, vol. 23(3), pages 383-413, December.
  10. Arthur J. Robson, 2001. "The Biological Basis of Economic Behavior," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 39(1), pages 11-33, March.
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  13. Shefrin, Hersh M & Thaler, Richard H, 1988. "The Behavioral Life-Cycle Hypothesis," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 26(4), pages 609-43, October.
  14. Jack Hirshleifer, 1977. "Economics from a Biological Viewpoint," UCLA Economics Working Papers 087, UCLA Department of Economics.
  15. Ainslie, George, 1991. "Derivation of "Rational" Economic Behavior from Hyperbolic Discount Curves," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 81(2), pages 334-40, May.
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  17. Chou, Shin-Yi & Grossman, Michael & Saffer, Henry, 2004. "An economic analysis of adult obesity: results from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 23(3), pages 565-587, May.
  18. Rogers, Alan R, 1994. "Evolution of Time Preference by Natural Selection," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(3), pages 460-81, June.
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