Reasonableness and the Food Environment

Us students band together. As I prepare for my CEcD exam, across the country, my fellow blogger Stephanie Bostic is working through complex food issues at Cornell. Please join me in examining her thoughtful work. 

Most of us depend on grocery stores for food, but our food environment can be very complex.  While I haven’t belonged to a CSA in recent years, I’ve had farm stand shares, belonged to coops, gone to u-pick places, shopped at roadside stands large and small, patronized orchards, gone to farmer’s markets, mail-ordered specialty foods, and bought maple syrup from a Boy Scout in front of a golf course.  And I’m not even including informal barter, gifts, or growing my own! One way to look at how we respond to and manage our environments, food and otherwise, is the Reasonable Person Model (RPM), which was developed by two psychologists.

How well does this fit into RPM?

How well does this fit into RPM?

The first component of RPM is intuitive: we, as humans, need information to survive and seek it out.  At a basic level, we need to know where we can breathe, find drinkable water, find food, and eventually reproduce.  Exploration lets us wander into new spaces to collect info tidbits like the location of a berry patch.  We then build all these nuggets of information into mental maps.  Take a second and draw your mental map of food shopping.  Does your map focus on individual items like onions, categories like dairy, or product characteristics like organic?  Did you include landmarks like signs or “the fourth mailbox after the row of pine trees” to help guide you through the map?  Do you have distinct sections, like by work versus by home or seasonal patterns? We use all of those when we consciously or unconsciously navigate our mental maps.

Building these mental maps helps us take action: catch a fish, pick some apples, or gather from the farmer’s markets.  Beyond just ensuring survival, food is a venue of adding meaning to our lives because it is so deeply embedded in our senses of ourselves, our families, and our communities.  Choosing to shop in different places, to buy foods that meet a certain way of eating, to buy items that support certain values like supporting local economies, or to care for another person are ways we add meaning to our food shopping.  It may not even be conscious, but every time you prepare a meal as a certain mixture of foods, you are acting on and reinforcing cultural meanings.

The challenge with being an information-seeking being is that we live in a world with what economists call imperfect information: our maps may not match reality.  We do not have complete knowledge, and our limited information isn’t even always the information we need.  Misleading or incomplete information can distort our mental maps, or we can feel unpleasantly lost when our mental map no longer matches our physical environment.  If you’ve ever been frustrated after a grocery store rearranged or overwhelmed by deciding between local or organic or fair trade or bird friendly or…You get the idea.

When information isn’t presented appropriately, we also struggle with what to give our attention to.  There are a few example of food packaging on this Pinterest board that illustrate how bright and large letters can present completely unimportant info in a way that places it in the center of your attention.  Another example you may have seen in stores is “Bakery” signs being quite prominent while “Vegetable” signs are less noticeable.  A sneaky way of catching your attention is by using scent or sound.  Attention-grabbing marketing that is distracting, pushed you toward less healthy choices (usually), and fails to provide you with the important information you need to buy, prepare, and eat healthy meals is makes it difficult to achieve your goals.  Too much distraction like this and we’re likely to become mentally fatigued and less able to be effective.  You could also just call this feeling cranky and unreasonable!

Recovering from this type of crankiness is surprisingly simple but hard to practice.  You have to disengage from the blaring information overload and use your soft focus, a way of letting your mind wander and recover.  One soft focus approach proposed in RPM is exposure to nature, even passively looking at trees through windows.  More active action, like walking through a park, is also a way to recover from mental fatigue.  Conventional grocery stores rarely feature nature, but you often have a chance to involve nature in your food shopping experience through farmer’s markets located outside, farm stands, u-pick operations, or even just by walking through a park on your way to the store.

To summarize, a Reasonable Personal Model-compliant experience supports information seeking, exploration, and mental recovery while avoiding overburdening you with distracting, undesirable, or misleading information.  Key features of the food shopping environment that may help lead to happier and healthier people include moderated advertising, opportunities for exploration, and thoughtful incorporation of recovery in the food environment.  To see some specific examples, visit Reasonable Food Shopping.  What are some experiences that you have had that have achieved “reasonableness” or have completely failed?


Stephanie Bostic is a PhD student at Cornell studying community nutrition. She is, unsurprisingly, interested in our food environment.  If you’d like to read more thoughts about our food environment and RPM, visit these posts on the proposed nutrition facts label and food labels. The Reasonable Person Model was proposed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. 


Leave a comment


  1. I shop at an Asian Market, a local grocery store, and Costco, almost exclusively. Occasionally, I’ll buy food that I can’t find at my favorite places from Amazon. Very interesting article. I miss the farmers markets I used to frequent in bygone days. I read ingredient labels carefully. I wish I knew what all the strange-sounding substances were made of and whether they are healthful for us. Thanks for sharing, Tammy. Blessings to you…

    • I enjoy Asian markets (best place to get fruit in the winter in Boston) a lot too, but they’ve (sadly) fallen off my radar where I live now because our large store carries enough of the specialty products that I just don’t go.

  2. I’m trying to do what I can to be as self-sufficient as possible. I’m not anywhere near that goal but it is a goal! xx

  3. This makes for very interesting reading and ties in nicely with my studies. Thanks for sharing this with us 🙂

    • And thanks to Tammy for hosting! Leave me a comment on my blog (so I get your e-mail) if you would like the original articles.

  4. Lisa H

     /  April 1, 2014

    For me, grocery stores are so overwhelming. End-caps encourage us to buy what the store thinks we need, sugary items in direct sight of the small kids, and then the noise from the music and announcements! Just yesterday I saw a women shopping with headphones. At first I thought that was a bit strange, but the more I think about it, she may be doing it right!
    To stores’ credit, though, I have seen the produce section grow to include a wider selection of produce presented in beautiful and eye appealing ways.

    • Yes, they have started to do much better with the produce! I think Whole Foods led the way and others have really followed.

      The store pictured (who shall not be named) actually has check-out lanes labeled as candy-free to help a tiny bit with the sugar-bombing of small children.

  5. I couldn’t really grasp the point that Stephanie is trying to make about the RPM. That said, I am mindful as I shop, and wear blinders when walking by the bakery department.

    • Was I too far away from concrete experiences? Or did I not tie it closely enough to outcomes? Or is the whole concept just too fuzzy? The main idea was to just talk about the theory as it could be applied to food shopping. Proposing improvements is a whole another post, or two, or three… Suggestions welcome!

      The blinders are a great example of consciously blocking off a portion of your mental map, though. Mind if I use that example in the future?

      • The whole concept is “just too fuzzy” for me. RPM is a theory I’ve never heard about before. You mention that its first component is intuitive, but I didn’t see anything specific about the second (or third) component.

        If I had to summarize your main point, it would be that we should be mindful as we shop ~ to filter out information that isn’t in line with our priorities.

        And, yes, absolutely, you can use wearing blinders as an example.

  6. “Misleading or incomplete information can distort our mental maps, or we can feel unpleasantly lost when our mental map no longer matches our physical environment.”

    It frustrates me how so often people determinedly refuse to explore any line of thought that is unflattering to the story they want to believe about themselves. We’re fighting wars, overspending, pretending we’re more affluent than we truly are and losing our connection to things like citizenship, community, accountability and integrity.

    I’m guessing that if you enjoy reading of this blog, you are probably already a reasonable person willing to engage in a little self-examination. Sadly, my work selling food to the public demonstrates there are more people who want to be flattered and dazzled than who want to be reasonably informed. As that percentage shifts, we will begin shopping more like reasonable people. Till then, Walmart Black Friday will endure.

  7. I no longer remember what I was after, but remember vividly encountering an acquaintance last fall at my local supermarket, and both of us saying that there were too many choices for us to process.

    In stark contrast are my several trips daily down to my milk goats. More often than I care to admit, I am in a hurry as I head for them, but once I see their smiling faces giving me their undivided attention, I take a deep breath and let go of the stress of all that is left undone. It is so hard to cope with buying store milk while they are dry.

    I have been making an effort for decades now for my mental food acquisition map to include as many local suppliers as possible, even though it often meant many stops to purchase individual items from individuals. I was crushed when our local orchard closed when their road was under construction for months.

    And I’m working toward growing as much of my own food as I can. I have chickens for eggs and the goats for milk and cheese (and buttermilk and yogurt) and I am doing a better job of following through after the digging and planting with caring for the plants and harvesting and consuming produce from my garden.

    Recently I splurged and bought dried apricots at Wal-Mart. Sounds straight-forward, eh? Think again. I couldn’t eat them! They had additional apricot flavor, which made them taste awful. I was flabbergasted that I needed to read the ingredients on dried apricots! Although I must say that the returns person took the opened package without question, so that could have been much worse.

    On navigating supermarkets, I keep in mind the tip I read many years ago that the perimeter tends to be real food (ingredients, the kind of thing that doesn’t have an ingredient list, since there’s only one), while the center section of aisles is where the scientific, chemical-filled food is.

  8. I buy the vast majority of our food right from the producer (beef, pork, lamb, milk, 2 CSAs for produce). The next biggest amount comes through a single middleman–a CSA which travels to the next state for blueberries and peaches that don’t grow here, and an organic buying club which brings in 50 lb bags of flour, some fresh veggies during our northern winters or citrus from the south. So our grocery store purchases are very specific–things like PB for bag lunches and frozen pizza for desperately busy days. Besides getting the best possible food, it is a delight to bypass (most of) the typical food buying experience.

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  10. Hi Stephanie – thanks, a whole new crept to ruminate over. I find it really interesting that the RPM seems to look at what we as humans do instinctively and build on that. What concerns me is that I have had a lifetime of overriding the messages my own mind sends out about great food. So that these days, it is instinctive to head for the big bakery signs. When I am busy, stressed or pressed for time the conditioning of the Western World takes over, levying sugar and salt cravings and a disinclination towards vegetables of any kind! To even avail oneself of RPM would seem to need a conscious detachment and considerable willpower. The marketing of this society is a powerful tractor beam.

  11. Sorry – should read, “a whole new concept”

  12. Tammy ~ I thought this FREE Food Revolution Summit might interest you.

  13. Wonderful post. Do You love recycling? If so, then check how my wife recycles:

    Bags from coffee bags.

  1. Reasonable Food Labels | Sustainable Cooking for One

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