Gary Becker Foresaw a Cure for Obesity that Daniel Kahneman Wrote Was “Implausible”

I have found much of value in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. But the following passage is not included in what I value.

A famous example of the Chicago approach is titled A Theory of Rational Addiction; it explains how a rational agent with a strong preference for intense and immediate gratification may make the rational decision to accept future addiction as a consequence. I once heard Gary Becker, one of the authors of that article, who is also a Nobel laureate of the Chicago school, argue in a lighter vein, but not entirely as a joke, that we should consider the possibility of explaining the so-called obesity epidemic by people’s belief that a cure for diabetes will soon become available. He was making a valuable point: when we observe people acting in ways that seem odd, we should first examine the possibility that they have a good reason to do what they do. Psychological interpretations should only be invoked when the reasons become implausible—which Becker’s explanation of obesity probably is.

Source: Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p. 412.

Gary Becker is vindicated again:

(p. A16) An experimental drug has enabled people with obesity or who are overweight to lose about 22.5 percent of their body weight, about 52 pounds on average, in a large trial, the drug’s maker announced on Thursday.

The company, Eli Lilly, has not yet submitted the data for publication in a peer-reviewed medical journal or presented them in a public setting. But the claims nonetheless amazed medical experts.

“Wow (and a double Wow!)” Dr. Sekar Kathiresan, chief executive of Verve Therapeutics, a company focusing on heart disease drugs, wrote in a tweet. Drugs like Eli Lilly’s, he added, are “truly going to revolutionize the treatment of obesity!!!”

Dr. Kathiresan has no ties to Eli Lilly or to the drug.

. . .

The Eli Lilly study lasted 72 weeks and involved 2,539 participants. Many qualified as obese, while others were overweight but also had such risk factors as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, cardiovascular disease or obstructive sleep apnea.

They were divided into four groups. All received diet counseling to reduce their calorie intake by about 500 a day.

One group was randomly assigned to take a placebo, while the other three received doses of tirzepatide ranging from 5 milligrams to 15 milligrams. Patients injected themselves with the drug once a week.

. . .

The medications are among a new class of drugs called incretins, which are naturally occurring hormones that slow stomach emptying, regulate insulin and decrease appetite. The side effects include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. But most patients tolerate or are not bothered by these effects.

For the full story, see:

Gina Kolata. “Experimental Obesity Drug Produces 20% Weight Loss.” The New York Times (Friday, April 29, 2022): A16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 1, 2022, and has the title “Patients Taking Experimental Obesity Drug Lost More Than 50 Pounds, Maker Claims.” Where there is a slight difference in wording between the online and the print versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Kahneman’s book is:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

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