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Understanding Stigma with a ‘Dogfood Sandwich’

Would you care for a dogfood sandwich? New research investigates this question with regard to ‘Stigma’. Previous investigators of ‘Stigma’ (e.g.Fallon et al., 1984; Rozin et al., 1985, 1986) have examined people’s reactions to cockroaches and ‘Hitler’s sweater’.

“For example, dipping a sterilized cockroach into a glass of juice lowered the average rating of the juice by more than 100 points.”

The study (published in the journal Organization, Volume 92, August 2013, pp. 202–213) is authored by William Schulze (Kenneth L. Robinson Professor of Agricultural Economics at Cornell University, US), Annemie Maertens (Assistant Professor in the International Development at the University of Pittsburgh, US), and 2007 Ig Nobel Nutrition prize winner Brian Wansink (John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behavior at Cornell University, US) * see note [1] below. It examines humans’ propensity towards stigma by giving experimental subjects refreshment opportunities featuring sandwiches made from “gourmet cooked canned chicken thighs for dogs” and ice cream. (that’s separately, not together).

The experimental procedure was fairly complex, so, in lieu of a summery, here’s an extract :

“In the case of the chicken dog food, the thighs were prepared by removing the skin, flaking and placing the pieces in a serving bowl so that the chicken could be used as any canned chicken would be for making sandwiches. As part of a ‘lunch experiment’ the respondents were offered the opportunity to purchase or be compensated to eat a chicken sandwich with their choice of bread and accouterments in three stages where more information was given and values were obtained at each of three stages beginning with a ‘canned chicken sandwich,’ followed by stages where either ingredients (chicken meat, chicken broth, kosher, no preservatives, and Kosher for Passover) or brand information (Evanger Super Premium for Dogs Whole Chicken Thighs) was revealed. The order of the second and third stage information was reversed in a subset of the sessions. Note that only the brand information revealed that the chicken was dogfood. In a subset of sessions we put the participants under cognitive load by asking them to look up (and memorize) the calorie content of eight food items on Google search. As part of the lunch experiment, participants were also given the opportunity to purchase or be compensated for eating vanilla ice cream following a similar design where initially they were only told the flavor of the ice cream, and then the brand (Walmart Fat Free Vanilla Flavored Ice Cream) and the ingredients were revealed.”

As part of their analysis, the team provide some mathematical representations :

“ … we can write the utility function that incorporates emotional utility for the decision to eat the chicken sandwich as:”

And, in conclusion :

“We find critical evidence of a dual process decision making process in which the absence of cognitive load allows the participants to deliberate over the health benefits of either food. In addition, in the case of the sandwich, there is an emotional component in which the positive emotion of surprise can partially offset the negative emotion of disgust. This has notable implications for addressing food safety fears related to contamination as well as the food neophobia related to unfamiliar foods, processing, or preparation.”

They do caution though, that a grain of salt might be required :

“Being under cognitive load increases the WTP [Willingness To Pay] but only when brand information is revealed in the brand first treatment (this effect is statistically significant at the 10% level using a t-test with unequal variances). This appears to contradict our hypothesis, but as many people opted out, i.e., they were not willing to accept even 20 USD, these averages need to be taken with a grain of salt, and hence we postpone discussion of the cognitive load for the time being.”


[1] * Professor Wansink was awarded the 2007 Ig Nobel Nutrition prize for exploring the seemingly boundless appetites of human beings, by feeding them with a self-refilling, bottomless bowl of soup.

[2] Improbable has not been able to find Whole Chicken Thighs in Evanger’s Super Premium dogfood range so, for the photo we’ve used instead their “Whole Chicken Thighs – packed by hand!” product.

ALSO SEE:  Pet projects : Can humans tell pâté from dog food? (The Guardian, Tuesday 26 May 2009)

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