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Never take an economist to yum cha

'Shall we split the bill then?' The economist asked with a cunning grin

Have you ever tried to win at yum cha? No? Good for you. I promise there are those of us who do. You know who you are, you rational consumer you.

What does it take to win at yum cha? Simple. Eat the most.

At yum cha, the bill is usually split evenly between the people at the table. So there is the risk you end up subsidising somebody else's meal if you don't eat enough. Best to invite your smaller friends.

The idea of trying to win at yum cha might sound stupid. It is. Don't take this article too literally. Yum cha is just a great metaphor for considering economic consumer theory and rationality.

Yum cha is not a game

How might a rational decision-maker approach yum cha, assuming the bill will be split and eating more is better?

At its simplest, the more you eat the better your bang for your buck. Eat little, and the group pays less. But you pay relatively more for what you do eat. Considering this, there is a range of strategies one might consider to win at yum cha:

  • Eat little beforehand in anticipation of eating a lot later

  • Be the go-to person for the waiter distributing food so you select what the group eats

  • Skip drinking to make the most out of the actual food

  • Eat as much as you can in 20-minutes, the estimated time it takes to feel satiated

  • I hear some people go to yum cha to socialise rather than just eat lunch - these people are great to bring along.

Of course, thinking in these terms isn't that helpful in everyday life and can lead to bad outcomes. Asides from getting a stomach ache from eating too much - odds are you won't be invited back next time around.

The potential for events to repeat is important - the actions of an individual influence the future actions of others. We can't ignore the future. When events repeat it makes more sense to cooperate with those around us to create a socially optimal situation - ie get invited back to yum cha.

Couple eating yum cha

Order the pork buns now, pay for them later

After studying microeconomics 101 you could be forgiven for thinking people are selfish, but miraculously, through our selfishness, we create a better world. This idea is fundamental to economics, as initially described by Adam Smith:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."

Rational consumer theory suggests people make choices that benefit themselves. Hence eating heaps at yum cha to get the best value. The problem with rational consumer theory is that people often don't do what's best due to short-term thinking, lack of knowledge, or because they are simply human.

Aside from the fact that overeating can feel terrible, many of the dishes at yum cha aren’t that good for you. Sure one pork bun won't make a difference, but eating that type of food frequently can compromise your health - obesity and heart disease for example.

This is that problem with short-termism again - we ignore the future. Making the ‘feel good’ short-term decision continuously can lead to bad outcomes for future you..

The notion of a rational consumer is flawed in this regard because people don’t necessarily prepare for what we don’t know or understand. People are bad with numbers and underestimate the risk to themselves of bad stuff happening. In this case, the consequences of an unhealthy diet. Can we still call it rational if people don't fully understand risk?

Chicken feet diplomacy

Preferences influence consumer choices and are one of the key elements of consumer theory. We maximise our utility, or satisfaction, by purchasing what we prefer.

At yum cha, this means choosing the dishes we enjoy. But, if we are splitting the bill, how do we handle it when people choose dishes we don't like?

Chicken feet are one of the more divisive yum cha choices. Some people love them, others don't. Ordering one portion is reasonable. Order five portions because you won't eat anything else, and people may start asking questions like who's going to pay for that?

People pay for others' preferences. This issue is difficult to manage for extreme, or fringe preferences that run against the majority. If one person loves chicken feet enough to order five portions, does that justify accommodating their request?

Governments have to grapple with competing preferences all the time. How do you address the concerns of those who want lockdowns to squash COVID-19 compared to those who want to keep their businesses open? Preferences can be incompatible, with very different costs for different groups. The loudest voice isn’t always right.

Just because we can win, doesn't mean we should try

The notion of winning at yum cha obviously shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s just an interesting example to illustrate that in economic reality, winning isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

The brinkmanship that can occur between parties vying to ‘win’ economically can be disastrous.

For example, it has been possible to ‘win’ during the COVID-19 pandemic, as least in the short term, by avoiding lockdowns to preserve economic interests. Countries that chose not to lockdown early suffered economically, and had higher case numbers. As we now know, it wasn’t really a choice.

A country can also ‘win’ at climate change by free-riding on other countries’ efforts to reduce emissions. Just because it might be possible to ‘win’, doesn’t mean we should try. Sometimes there is too much at stake.

Enjoy your next yum cha.


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