Too Much Information


Elena Fagotto and Archon Fung in Boston Review:

Americans eat out more than ever before, and their waistlines are showing it. Restaurant foods pack more calories than most patrons imagine—a single entrée or shake can contain as many as 2,000 calories—contributing to the epidemic of obesity, which affects a third of the adult population. Will information help Americans to take better care of themselves? We will soon find out. Due to new regulations, by the end of 2015, calorie counts will appear on the menus and menu boards of large restaurant chains, grocery stores, and even movie theaters.

The calorie-disclosure rule is just one of the recent attempts at legislating transparency in the hope of changing behavior without resorting to more invasive and politically difficult regulatory approaches such as banning products or setting specific product standards. For instance, police departments in Seattle, Phoenix, and Albuquerque have deployed body cameras to reduce police violence, and in December of last year, the White House called for funding to purchase an additional 50,000. Faith in cameras seems well placed: after Rialto, California, adopted cameras, the use of force by police officers dropped by almost 60 percent and complaints declined by almost 90 percent. Transparency has also been used to inspire resource conservation. U.S. utility companies have found that by sending customers information about how their energy usage compares to their neighbors’, they can induce those customers to cut down. In another example, the incidence of food-borne illnesses decreased in Los Angeles after local laws began requiring restaurants to post cleanliness scores they received from hygiene inspections. And thanks to other disclosure requirements, you can learn about school performance, local water quality, crime levels on university campuses, and vehicle safety. The Supreme Court and many others have looked to disclosure as a bulwark against the corrosive effect of money on our democratic political institutions. The applications of transparency seem boundless, its promise to empower consumers and citizens and to discipline corporations and governments considerable.

But more information does not always make things better. Where there is a glut of information, it is often ignored. Worse still, it can be misused and cause harm.

More here.