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Ph.D. Economist Explains Why Eating Tide Pods May be 'Entirely Rational Behavior' for Teens

Marc Pagan Tide Pod Challenge

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.