Last week, a Texas Ph.D. economist published a paper arguing that consuming Tide Pods could be an “entirely rational behavior” for teenagers. He combined psychological, evolutionary, and economic theories to explain why it might actually make sense for an enterprising teen to knowingly poison himself.
“The underlying motivation for consuming Tide Pods is closely analogous to the evolutionary reasons for other risk-seeking behavior on the part of adolescents, especially males, which leads to other dangerous behaviors such as substance abuse,” Ryan Murphy wrote in “The Rationality of Tide Pod Consumption.”
Discussing the phenomenon of teenage boys filming their eating of laundry detergent pods and posting the videos on social media, Murphy contended that social science and evolutionary theory can reveal the underlying reason behind the “Tide Pod Challenge.”
“The underlying reason for adolescents to do this is to publicly engage in risk-seeking behavior as a means of seeking status, and as such is very similar to adolescent substance abuse,” the economist wrote. If eating Tide Pods could make a teen boy more money on his YouTube channel or attract a girl, then “it is straightforward to interpret the consumption of laundry detergent as entirely rational behavior.”
Murphy analyzed the Tide Pod Challenge using the lens of the handicap principle, an evolutionary hypothesis to explain seemingly idiotic behavior as a mechanism to attract a mate. The principle suggests that in order to demonstrate he has a desirable trait, an enterprising male will put on a costly display to attract a female. Thus, animals who are more fit would voluntarily handicap themselves to demonstrate their fitness and therefore the fitness of potential offspring.
The handicap principle helps explain why peacocks evolved to have useless tails, and why some gazelles engage in “stotting” — jumping up in a way that makes them more visible to predators. Among humans, spending excessive amounts of money on an expensive car or house signals wealth to potential mates. Some have explained drug abuse using such a theory.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it may be rational for a gazelle to risk being eaten in order to prove that he is fit enough to run away, and therefore attract a mate. Similarly, “status-seeking” trends like Tide Pod consumption “can be thought of as rational,” Murphy wrote. This kind of behavior may be “comprehensible and rational from the standpoint of economic theory.”
“Even if the risk premium earned for engaging in illegal activities appears to entirely be outweighed by the risk incurred, those engaging in such activities may correctly perceive that doing so provides them with the highest probability for achieving sufficient income and status to find a mate,” the economist explained.
Murphy’s clear explanation occasionally became quite hilarious.
“Consuming poison, such as laundry detergent, without the pleasure promised by conventional substance abuse, in as public of a setting as possible, is the mechanism described above in play stripped to its very core,” he wrote. “It only appears inane and irrational in the absence of recognizing the underlying reasons for adolescents engaging in behaviors like substance abuse.”
“If an adolescent wishes to attain notoriety and credibly signal [biological fitness], the signal must be precisely as stupid as a gazelle slowing down in front of a predator,” Murphy argued. “The stupider the behavior (for instance, pretending a colorful capsule of laundry detergent is candy), the more credible the signal is.”
“Prior to social media firms cracking down on the videos, they could very well earn the poison consumer the prestige of millions of views on YouTube. Few other opportunities for that kind of celebrity may be available for someone of low status,” the economist wrote.
This could make Tide Pod consumption extremely rational — risking health to gain money, fame, and sex. “It is possible simultaneously for the gains incurred through social media infamy to be greater than the loss incurred through a visit to the emergency room with probability p and for there to be negative social consequences,” Murphy argued.
Although consuming Tide Pods may make sense for a few “low status” teenage boys to gain notoriety and girlfriends, such trends can create enormous problems for society as a whole.
“The greater danger with externalities is that if a large enough number of people begin eating Tide Pods, then there could be a social shift such that, instead of eating Tide Pods to signal higher status, it could become necessary to eat Tide Pods simply to avoid signaling low status,” Murphy warned. Ouch.
“This may sound even more outrageous than what I have previously argued, but this is likely the equilibrium Western societies were in before significant governmental intervention took place discouraging tobacco use,” he added. “It isn’t clear that habitually breathing poison sticks several times a day is a stickier equilibrium than a social convention of ritualistically trying to ingest laundry detergent.”
While social media sites like Facebook and YouTube have removed videos showing the true consumption of Tide Pods, Murphy warned that similar dangerous trends are likely to re-emerge. “It is unlikely that society will ever succeed at stopping adolescents from engaging in risky behavior to signal status, so if attaining social media fame via eating laundry detergent is not an option, something else risky may become a new one,” the economist wrote. “‘Young adolescent males do something stupid,’ should not be surprising.”
There may have been a significant silver lining to the Tide Pod craze, however. The general incidence of poisoning through detergent may have decreased even while the Tide Pod Challenge picked up speed. Murphy noted that in 2018, 215 teens have received treatment related to consuming Tide Pods. Even so, that number is less than the decline in children under five receiving the same treatment.
“Taking these numbers at face value, it could imply that the Tide Pod Challenge is raising awareness of the issue such that it is causing the overall number of poisoning incidents to fall,” the economist wrote.
Perhaps the next dumb teen craze can also have some marginal benefit. Americans should thank their lucky stars that social media companies — often rightly attacked for verging on censorship — acted quickly to crack down on the Tide Pod Challenge. It is not impossible that by 2030, a potential employee would have to show a YouTube video of himself eating a Tide Pod in order to get a job. Indeed, it could be argued that as college loses its educational value, an undergraduate degree itself may be considered an example of the handicap principle.
As for the notorious insanity of teens at the beginning of 2018, if it ever was rational to eat Tide Pods, it certainly isn’t now.