French Fries, Credit Cards, and Debt Psychology: The Behavioral Economics of Small Decisions

David Krueger MD

The Tyranny of Small Decisions

How do two French fries weigh 40 pounds?

  • Putting on 40 pounds over 10 years means gaining an average of four pounds per year

  • 40 pounds divided by 10 years equals 4 pounds per year

  • 4 pounds divided by 12 months equals .33 (1/3) of a pound per month. 

  • This is approximately 1/100th of a pound per day (1/3 pound divided by 30 days) 

  • One pound of stored fat represents 3500 calories

  • 3500 times 1/100 equals 35

  • To achieve the feat of gaining 40 pounds in 10 years, all you have to do is consume an extra 35 calories every day.

  • 35 calories = two regular French fries

Little things count.

Economist Alfred Kahn described how we become trapped by the series of seemingly insignificant choices that we make – the tyranny of small decisions.    And, if we were able to see ahead to the end results of those small decisions, we may chart an entirely different course.

If you are burdened by credit card debt, it probably wasn’t one huge purchase that created the problem.  More likely, it was hundreds of small decisions, all along the way.  Some were necessary, some justified, some rationalized.  “It’s just a couple of French fries” thinking.  Internal bargaining took care of others: “Just this one time” or “I’ll pay it off next month.”  Segmentation of the pleasure of the purchase from the pain of payment obviated any lingering questions. 

The Nobility of Small Decisions

Consider the inverse: the nobility of small decisions. 

We recognize in parenting, from the very beginning, that we really don’t know which interactions or words will be really important, or even remembered.  Knowing that we don’t know, we have to assume that everything we do is important.  Everything matters.

Consider the very small decision of stopping for a $4 coffee each day.  Calculate how much that is per year.  With interest, how much it would be in ten years.  In twenty years.

Epictetus asked twenty centuries ago: “What is a good person?”  The one, he reflected, who achieves tranquility by having formed the habit of asking on every occasion, “What is the right thing to do now?” 

You can be held hostage by small decisions.  Or, you can be effective, achieve mastery, and freedom by small decisions. 

All you have to do in life is the next right thing.