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“The belief was so strong that it trumped the evidence before them.”

I was reading Palko on the 5 cent cup of coffee and spotted this:

We’ve previously talked about bloggers trying to live on a food stamp budget for a week (yeah, that’s a thing). One of the many odd recurring elements of these post is a litany of complaints about life without caffeine because

I had already understood that coffee, pistachios and granola, staples in my normal diet, would easily blow the weekly budget.

Which is really weird because coffee isn’t all that expensive.

Palko then goes into detail about how easy it is to buy a can of ground coffee at the supermarket for the cost of 5 or 10 cents a cup.

He continues:

On the other end, if you go to $0.15 or $0.20 a cup and you know how to shop, you can move up into some surprisingly high-quality whole bean coffee . . . you can do better than the typical cup of diner coffee for a dime and better than what you’d get from most coffee houses for a quarter.

To be clear, I’m not recommending that everyone rush out to Wal-Mart for a big ol’ barrel of Great Value Classic Roast. If your weekly food budget is more than fifty dollars a week, bargain coffee should be near the bottom of your concerns.

But here’s the important point—that is, important in general, not just for coffee drinkers (of which I am not one):

What we’re interested in here are perceptions. The people we discussed earlier suffered through a week of headaches and other caffeine-withdrawal pains, not because they couldn’t afford it but because the belief that they couldn’t afford it was so strong that it trumped the evidence before them.

This comes up a lot. People condition on information that isn’t true.


  1. jrkrideau says:

    People condition on information that isn’t true.

  2. Krzysztof Sakrejda says:

    Acquiring good information is costly too in terms of time and resources, especially when your time and resources are limited (e.g., no car, multiple jobs, no internet). People are conditioning on information that is not true but getting information is costly as well so this ends up being a great example for including cost functions and end-points in your calculations.

    In this case the cost function would have to characterize the trade-off between paying too much and sampling different places to find the best prices. It really is a lot of effort to go through to refute the hot-air idea that poor people are living it up on the dole, but it is a nice stats example.

    • Alex Godofsky says:

      It’s true that information is costly, but someone living on food stamps a week only gets to amortize that cost over five days. Someone living on food stamps over the long term can do so over a much longer period.

      • Krzysztof Sakrejda says:

        Following up on “Economist” below, living on food stamps long-term only helps so much since this is information that changes. Food prices are volatile relative to a lot of other consumer goods.

        • Mark Palko says:

          Price fluctuations probably aren’t that big a deal in this specific case (slightly more expensive Folgers is still pretty cheap), but it can be a huge issue with foods like poultry, dairy and produce. A spike in those areas can cause real hardship and hunger.

    • Dzhaughn says:

      While a fair enough about the poor, it is not apropos to people playing at being poor for a week. They have lots of resources to price stuff out, indeed it is fun part of their game.

  3. Economist says:

    Not relevant for this example, but I like a more nuanced version of your last sentence : “People condition on information that was true in the past”.
    Sometimes that information is still true, but sometimes it is no longer true. That’s when “intelligent” people make costly mistakes even after considerable thought and analysis.

  4. Eli Rabett says:

    In this case the issue is what the cups of coffee crowd out, and most caffine addicts are into pots full, not cups.

  5. jrc says:

    “People condition on information that isn’t true.” I’m feeling a bit contrarian today, so let me push back, without having to pretend that this is really just about food stamp journalism. I just think this is a good time to remember that everything we do in statistics is based on information that isn’t true, on theoretical constructs that don’t actually map to the world, and on beliefs and opinions about how the world works that are both false and necessary. So then, Nietzsche:

    First: On the impossibility of a priori truth upon which to condition:

    …[I]t is high time to replace the Kantian question, “How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?” by another question, “Why is belief in such judgments necessary?”–in effect, it is high time that we should understand that such judgments must be believed to be true, for the sake of the preservation of creatures like ourselves; though they still might naturally be false judgments! Or, more plainly spoken, and roughly and readily–synthetic judgments a priori should not “be possible” at all; we have no right to them; in our mouths they are nothing but false judgments. Only, of course, the belief in their truth is necessary…

    Second: on the value of truth and falsity as things to condition on:

    The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely imagined world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. To recognize untruth as a condition of life…

    So my question:

    How does the belief by mediocre journalists that coffee is unaffordable on food stamps allow them to live a valuable life? Well – it lets them write stupid articles people read, and thus keeps them employed in the short term. But this directly contradicts their supposed life as “journalists” and not “hack writers”. So my guess is that it has more to do with a way of life that finds meaning in revealing the world to be a place that is difficult and unfair to many people. This is an impulse I think is common among many educated, upper-middle-class people in the US. It allows them to live their lives, relatively guilt free, and feel as though they are helping the world, while maintaining a standard of living they also highly value. This is a purely individual desire and motivation, and so from the outside, from people who look to journalists to struggle with and present “truth”, we are offended, because in our minds their job is not to make themselves feel OK about the world, but to inform us and allow us to interpret the world in a way that is useful to our lives. It would be better, from our perspective, to have journalists who find meaning in providing information on the world without judgement. But that perspective apparently does not dominate the nature of demand for news stories – lots of people seem to just want to be told what to think.

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    At Costco, a can of Yuban that makes 325 cups goes for under $10. A coffeemaker at Costco goes for about $30 or $35 and probably needs to be replaced maybe every 10,000 cups of coffee. Water and electricity aren’t free, either. Coffee cups need to be bought and washed. I drink black coffee, but you might like cream and sugar, which aren’t free. But a cup of coffee for a nickel or a dime seems reasonable.

    On the other hand, belonging to Costco costs $110 per year. The vast majority of people who shop at Costco drive their own cars, or often their own large SUVs since Costco is set up for vehicle owners with lots of storage space at home. I don’t know if Costco accepts food stamps, I don’t recall ever seeing them used there.

    So, to get into the class of people for whom shopping at Costco is natural, you probably need an income of at least $50,000 per year.

    • Even at my local Ralphs (Kroger) I can get 12 oz (340 g) of their “select” whole bean coffee for less than $8. This is pretty much the best thing they have in the store (they’re not deluxe coffee vendors after all).

      A typical Moka pot takes around 25 g of coffee and brews a very good largish cup. So maybe $0.60 a cup, which is about 7 or 8 times less than the cost of a fourbucks Starbucks coffee.

      I think people think coffee is expensive because people buy a lot of convenient coffee at enormous markups, and this is why there are sometimes more than one starbucks on the same street corner.

      • zbicyclist says:

        Folgers, Maxwell House, and Hills Brothers are drinkable, and are frequently promoted. Plus, they say right there on the can how many cups they make. There’s not a huge amount of search necessary.

        There’s a huge irony here. Starbucks conditioned us that it’s reasonable to pay $2.45 for a very good cup of coffee [I realize opinions vary here], but part of what we were paying for was the ambiance of having a place to talk, lounge around reading the paper or working using the WiFi. But now a huge amount of their business is the ambiance-free drive thru — and on a busy morning you could spend almost as much time in the drive thru line as it would take to make a good cup of coffee at home.

        I’ll stop now before I go on a K-cup rant.

  7. Traeren says:

    ” People condition on information that isn’t true.”

    Is above statement true or false?

    How would an average person verify that statement?
    {..or even suspect verification was applicable?}

    Is the statement universally true, conditionally true/false, or merely rhetoric?

    [Bonus Question: What’s the rough ratio of misinformation to factual information encountered by average people in their daily lives?]

  8. jonathan says:

    The coffee test tastes show the problem with cheaper beans is often “quakers”, which is the term for poorly roasted individual beans. These can be seen and so if you take the time and pick them out you can make ordinary bean coffee better.

    That said, the flaw in the “live on food stamps” notion and coffee is they act as though they own nothing and must buy each thing. A person on food stamps allocates money to short and long term needs: you buy oats in an economy size though the initial cost is more than the smallest size because the large size lasts and that frees up money for other needs, from short to long term. But these nuts act as though a person on food stamps only spends money on what he/she needs right now, which is not only absurd but paternalistic and in many cases racist. So yeah, it’s extremely cost effective to buy coffee beans but not if you’re thinking like an idiot. The real conditioning in these “experiments” is the absence of this level of reason. It would be easy, for example, to allocate a portion of the week’s food stamp budget to what you use out of your existing pantry.

    • Andrew says:


      I’ll say one thing: if you have roaches or mice in your apartment, or if you just have no space to put anything, it makes the whole food-preparation thing that much more difficult.

    • Elin says:

      Don’t they ever wonder who buys those 50 pound bags of rice in the grocery store?

    • This is true, as far as it goes, but also many poor people wind up buying expensive small quantities of items because they can’t afford to go very far, or because they can’t afford that much out of pocket right now. This is an aspect of poverty-trap that shouldn’t be overlooked. 2 packs of toilet paper rolls sell in gas stations for $5 or whatever. A 20 pack at Target which is 2 miles away is… $13

      Also, I was impressed when my wife and I moved in 2008 how much it cost to buy condiments and spices and things to get “set up” in a way we expected: mustard, ketchup, hot-sauce, maple-syrup, salt, pepper, soy-sauce, black-bean-sauce, coriander, garlic powder, bay leaves, cloves etc etc etc. We probably spent an extra $500 the first month! Of course, we bought in bulk expecting those things to last months to years, and wanting to get the lowest unit price. Because of that, our food bill during the year was probably $500 or $1000 lower than if we’d bought tiny bottles of hot-sauce and the smallest little plastic jars of spices. That’s $500-$1000 that the poor people who can only afford small quantities would be spending, or it’s pancakes without syrup, tacos without hot sauce, roast chicken without rosemary or oregano…

      There’s a reason the spice trade was so hot in the middle ages.

      • zbicyclist says:

        In some cases, you can buy a lifetime supply. We’re moving this week, and cleaned out the spice cabinet, finding a few jars that I bought as a grad student in the 1970s.

        (I’m not saying the flavor has lasted 40 years, of course.)

        To see a retailer who seems to have a good grasp of selling food to low-income people, visit Aldi.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Right, Aldi is a good thing for a poor community. If you were poor, having an Aldi nearby selection is optimized for your financial situation and tastes, would be quite beneficial.

          • delayna says:

            Also an Asian market. Spices/beans/produce/meat are all cheaper there than in a regular supermarket. Regular national-brand groceries are more expensive there.

            But the real trick to living well, or at least nearly so, on food stamps is having a middle-class mind set. For that segment of the poor who are not accustomed to planning ahead/ saving/ preparing food to save money so they can have better things next month or next year, the experiment may actually be accurate.

  9. Rick Jones says:

    This is really an area that’s worth much more investigation and research.

    In the late ’80s, I was attending annual 10-day silent Vipassana mediation retreats at the Insight Meditation Society in central Massachusetts. The building was a former seminary or something, and had an institutional kitchen, dining hall, and dish washing facility.

    In the dining hall there was a built-in bookcase with hundreds of coffee/tea cups that people had contributed over the years.

    As often happens during such situations, one’s mind tends to become fixated on small things during prolonged periods of silence and reduced mental input (there was no reading, television, music, eye contact, or interactions with others for 10 days). In my case, I became fixated on (among other things) three earth-brown coffee/tea mugs that had flying pheasants and ducks ornamenting them. I really like these mugs, and each year when I arrived I sought them out as a comfort item. If they were all dirty, I often hand-washed one to use because I liked them so much.

    After 3 or 4 years of attending the retreats — and becoming absolutely convinced there were only three of these mugs — I went into the dining hall early one morning to make a cup of tea. On the way, I passed the dishwasher and saw all three mugs in the dirty dishes. For whatever reason — it was probably very early and I didn’t want to make noise — I decided not to hand wash one but instead went to the bookcase to try to find another cup or mug that I might use.

    I went to the bookcase and started scanning the hundreds of cups and mugs for one I liked. I kept scanning and scanning, but nothing appealed to me. I felt myself start to get agitated. This was taking entirely too long. But I couldn’t bring myself to settle on one.

    Finally, something clicked. I realized that a fourth mug from the same set — earth-brown with a bird on the side — was actually on the shelf at eye level right in front of me. I had been incapable of seeing it because I didn’t believe there were more then three in the set. And as soon as I saw it it was as if the world changed, and I realized there were actually more of the same set scattered around with the other cups/mugs in the bookcase. I counted four more.

    This lesson has never left me. My *belief* in the existence of only three mugs in the set completely blinded me to the actual *fact* of the existence of eight mugs in the set. I’ve had a pretty rich and full life, but I count this particular incident as one of the most profound I’ve experienced.

  10. Thomas says:

    How about this WEF report on global risks in gullibility — “Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World.” The report documents the inherent risks in a wide range of settings of “going viral” with information.

  11. dustydog says:

    For someone living on food stamps, or a student ineligible for food stamps, coffee IS too pricey. So are cigarettes. Every luxury is too expensive. 10 cents a day is $3 a month. When you are fasting for 2 or 3 days before the next paycheck comes, $3 is a lot.

    Try being 17 and parentless with nothing. Try get free stuff from the bureaucracy as a non-illegal immigrant male. You can’t get into a shelter without lying, because you are under 21 and over 14. Try getting your own social security card and high school transcripts when you can’t afford PO box, and when the shelter might or might not steal or throw away your mail. Hell – try to go get a library card or a free county parks and rec ID car from nothing. Getting and staying on the dole is a full-time, humiliating, job. Getting a job from flat nothing is an achievement.

    You’d learn a lot more trying to somebody (yourself or somebody else) on food stamps or a ‘free’ county health program, rather than playing at budgeting for a week. You’d learn more helping a released prisoner get his wallet and coat back.

    • TD says:

      Eh, I’ve been a poor student, no food stamps, living out of my car for weeks. Sandwiches go a long way, no one has to fast for 3 days even before we talk about soup kitchens and whatnot, and yes you can afford coffee. Hell, there’s free coffee all over the place these days.

      People in the US have little idea what true poverty is like. Try a few months in the Philippines or Sierra Leone.

  12. WTP says:

    What we’re interested in here are perceptions.

    B-b-b-b-ut, but but…several years ago, in the context of marriage counseling, after I pointed out that my wife was wrong about some fact that I’ve long forgotten its relevance, a psychiatrist, and Ivy League educated one no less, informed me that “perception is reality”. So…like…he was like a really smart guy with a PhD and shit and knew, like, lots of stuff and stuff. So like, according to the smart people of the world, evidence is irrelevant and shit. So that, like, totally defeats your point. Ya feel me?

  13. Mhj says:

    Emotion ALWAYS trumps logic. Every time, for everybody, and if you think that doesn’t apply to you, well, that’s probably because you are emotionally invested in believing you are the logical, rational, dispassionate exception.

    Now, some people are not heavily invested in some issues, and so there is a chance of them actually paying close attention to the facts and drawing correct or at least rational conclusions. And some people, who are aware of all this, are able to in effect detach their thought process from their first-order emotions, but only if they are fully aware of their own biases and have the strength of will to overcome them (i.e., substitute a different set of emotional goals or needs) in a particular case. But in my experience and reading, those are pretty rare birds.

    The problem is that for the issues that matter, almost by definition, many people have already decided their answer, and they are just trying to confirm their biases, whether they understand that or not.

    In this case, most people who “try to live on a food stamp budget” and then write about it already know that it’s a terrible ordeal, so they are perfectly happy to suffer the effects of caffeine withdrawal, which they can add to the litany of the inadequacies of that budget. Emotionally, the withdrawal headaches confirm their biases and provide emotional satisfaction, they are actually motivated to NOT look for an affordable answer (say, a $1 cup of Dunkin Donuts dark roast, rather than their usual $4 Starbucks Grande Sumatra with almond and soy milk.

    This is either stated or implicit in almost all the cognitive science research of the last 3 or 4 decades, at least, and has been a recurrent theme in psychology for almost two centuries, and literature for 2 millennia.

    • WTP says:

      This is either stated or implicit in almost all the cognitive science research of the last 3 or 4 decades, at least, and has been a recurrent theme in psychology for almost two centuries, and literature for 2 millennia.

      Yeah, funny how people miss that. ALWAYS…every time, eh? You gotta admit though, that emotional investments do pay dividends.

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