This article originally appeared on The Conversation, and is republished under a Creative Commons licence.
There are some anecdotes just so good that almost every story about a particular economic principle begins the same. So too this article begins with cake mix.
In the 1950, the story goes, US food company General Mills wanted ideas on how to sell more of its Betty Crocker brand of instant cake mixes. It put psychologist Ernest Dichter – the “father of motivational research” – on the case.
Dichter ran focus groups. Change the recipe, he then advised the company. Replace powdered eggs in the cake mix with the requirement to add fresh eggs. All-instant cake mix makes baking too easy. It undervalues the labour and skill of the cake maker. Give the baker more ownership in the final result.
And the rest is history.
It’s likely this story is extremely overegged. Inconvenient facts include another company, Duncan Hines having a cake mix recipe using fresh eggs (developed by food chemist Arlee Andre) as early as 1951. And in 1935, the company P. Duff and Sons was granted a patent for a cake mix using fresh eggs.
“The housewife and the purchasing public in general seem to prefer fresh eggs,” the patent reads, “and hence the use of dried or powdered eggs is somewhat of a handicap from a psychological standpoint.”
Even the book sometimes credited as the source of the Dichter anecdote, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, by Laura Shapiro, says that “if adding eggs persuaded some women to overcome their aversion to cake mixes, it was at least partly because fresh eggs made for better cakes”.