The Behavioral Economics of Leftover Pizza

Jared would be proud of me. Whenever I grab lunch to eat in my office, I head over to Subway for a six-inch Veggie Delite with provolone. Just 280 calories. Yum.

Depending on my mood and workload, I usually gobble down my Subway lunch between 12:15 and 1:00pm.

On Monday, though, I started eating at 11:22.

Like any good economist, I asked myself why. What inspired me to eat an hour early? Did I face some new incentive or new constraint that caused me to eat sooner?

No, I didn’t. Monday was a normal day. No new incentives, no new constraints, no other changes.

Except for one other thing: I brought lunch from home. Two slices of leftover BBQ chicken pizza. Also yum.

Small slices - this pizza will go far

If you are a well-trained neoclassical economist, your initial inclination will be to search for a subtle link between these facts. Perhaps cold pizza tastes better at 11:22 than an hour later. But that’s not true. Perhaps I ate early because I saved on travel time to Subway. No dice; Subway is only 90 seconds away.

Perhaps these facts are unrelated, a mere happenstance. No again. From long experience I can tell you that I always eat lunch earlier when I bring it from home than when I get it at Subway. It’s a law of nature. Indeed, I have sometimes eaten lunch as early as 10:30 on days I brought it to work with me. This is particularly likely if I put the lunch in my desk, rather than in the refrigerator down the hall.

The explanation for this behavior is, of course, psychological or, in the lingo of economics, behavioral. My lizard brain excels at knowing when food is near. And in getting me to eat it. Millions of years of natural selection didn’t favor creatures that wait an extra hour or two before they grab lunch. If the food is at hand, eat it now.

So every time I bring lunch to work, I set off a battle of wills. My rational, patient, busy self who likes to eat around 12:30, and my primordial brain that wants to eat when the eating is good.

That old brain has, if you will, the upper hand. It knows how to get what it wants. All it needs to do is remind me that food is near. I often feel as though lunch is calling to me from my desk drawer or, slightly more faintly, from the refrigerator. But that’s really the lizard brain doing its thing.

Ignoring that voice takes willpower. But that saps the mental energy I need to focus on my work. To shut my lizard brain up, I have only one choice – to get lunch over with. So on Monday I happily started in on my six slices of pizza at 11:22, washed them down with some iced green tea, and got back to work.

Perfectly rational behavior, I should note, given my urges, yet irrational as well measured against my “real” eating preferences. So it goes in the battle between our inner selves.

But wait. Didn’t I say I brought two slices of BBQ chicken pizza from home? How did I end up eating six?

Don’t worry, I didn’t steal a co-worker’s pizza from the refrigerator (if such thefts are a problem for you, please see this post).

Instead, I played along with another feature of my lizard brain. Eating six slices of pizza is much more filling than eating two. So I divided each of the two large pizza slices into three smaller ones. I then got to enjoy eating six slices, not just two.

I realize that sounds kind of insane. My rational, neoclassical side agrees. But it works. Perfectly rational given my urges, yet irrational as well. Such is life.

Note: Pizza photo from Chocolate on my Cranium.

10 thoughts on “The Behavioral Economics of Leftover Pizza”

  1. if you were really hungry you could have divided the 2 slices into 12 slices would have really impressed the old lizard brain.

    It’s kinda like printing fiat currency isn’t it?

      1. I just wanted to let you know I do the same thing when I make pizza. Lots of small slices – easier to handle and easier to keep from over -eating. There is something to the idea of feeling fuller when you ate 4 slices of pizza, even though they really only comprise 1/4 of a pizza pie.

        May all your illusions, be pizza illusions..

  2. This would make more sense if the extra pizza slices were given away to other people since that’s the point of printing fiat.

    1. Fiat – one day you have a million dollars in circulation and with a single key press on a terminal, you have 10 million dollars in circulation. You have increased by 10 what was, without creating anything other than illusions.
      Just as slicing a pizza slice creates 2 slices without really making more pizza.
      Doesn’t matter if you eat it or give it away. It is the action of creating illusory wealth(plenty0 that is the essence of being of fiat.

      The practice of circulating fiat is merely the means of preserving the illusion by destroying all other forms of money. Can you pay your taxes in gold or silver coins? No they only accept fiat and fiat instruments.

      Fiat is an illusion we all are forced to accept as reality. Illusion are eventually shattered. Tulips in Holland comes to mind.

  3. Great post–it really does sap so much energy and willpower to keep the ‘lizard brain’ at bay.

    Your ‘more slices is more’ strategy is similar to what Captain William Bligh narrates when he was forced off HMS Bounty by mutineers: to make his daily ration of bread last longer, he broke it up into little pieces and found he felt less hungry as he ate them slowly.

    1. Nice example. Here’s an excerpt from his journal:

      To make our bread a little savoury we frequently dipped it in salt water; but for my own part I generally broke mine into small pieces, and eat it in my allowance of water, out of a cocoa-nut shell, with a spoon, economically avoiding to take too large a piece at a time, so that I was as long at dinner as if it had been a much more plentiful meal.


  4. A weight loss tip:

    Several years ago I wanted to lose some weight. I typically ate in my office, as did most of my colleagues, due to time pressure.

    I searched for and found the worst-tasting protein bars on the market and ordered a few cases*. I kept them in my desk.

    It worked as anticipated. They tasted so bad that I only ate when really hungry. I lost the weight.

    As a note, I could have ordered delivery of some better-tasting food of which I would have consumed more and which would have been more calorie-dense, or taken an elevator to a vending machine, but I avoided those options via the combination of an upfront commitment of myself not to do that**, plus the fact that I waited until so hungry that the immediacy of my filling (albeit bad-tasting) protein bars somewhat offset the opportunity for better taste at the cost of traveling to the vending machine for junk or waiting a while for delivery.

    * I think it was Optimum Nutrition Complete Protein Diet Bar (either Peanut Butter or original flavor, but this was 2004 and it’s possible they’ve reformulated since and improved taste).

    ** There have been two times in my life when I had put on a bit of weight I wanted to lose, and both times I found that one key element in losing the weight was to establish clear (realistic) rules (e.g., that I would only eat those protein bars at work, and a total daily calorie budget) rather than counting on myself to make the right decision on the spot each day. It helped to establish in my head that these rules were inviolable, so that I didn’t even consider alternatives on the spot. Of course, it helps to create supportive conditions, as with having those protein bars in my desk. Also, both times I build in accountability to myself by maintaining a spreadsheet I updated each day with the prior day’s total calories consumed, whether or not I worked out, and current morning’s weight and body fat percentage (and deviation from targets I had planned for that date). Yes, that sounds extremely anal, but it worked. Clear rules + accountability and the associated good or bad feelings and anticipation thereof the prior day = success for me in taking off extra pounds.

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