Co-authored by Jan Kirchner and Nadia Montazeri.

There is this SpongeBob episode called “Neptune’s Spatula”, in which SpongeBob ends up in a competition with Neptune about who is the best fry cook. To summarize the relevant part:

Neptune challenges SpongeBob to prove who is the better fry cook. If SpongeBob wins, he could level up his career and start working at Atlantis. The competition takes place in front of an audience in a huge arena—the Poseidome—where we see Neptune work on an economy of scale in the time SpongeBob manages to serve a single burger. The single burger is prepared with a lot of care and love for detail: we see SpongeBob painting smiling faces onto the pickle slices, blanketing them with cheese and reading them a good night story.
The score counter for Neptune’s burgers soon reaches 1,000, so he wins and shares his burgers with the cheering audience. The whole crowd starts to eat and is disgusted at the taste. Angrily, Neptune gives SpongeBob’s burger a try and ends up falling in love with the delicacy. Neptune declares SpongeBob the winner. SpongeBob however doesn’t want to go to Atlantis, because he can’t take his friends with him. Instead, Neptune starts taking fry cooking lessons at the Krusty Krab under SpongeBob’s oversight, where SpongeBob reminds him that "perfect patties are made with love, not magic".

The metric used in the competition is “amount of burgers”, and at first, Neptune wins with his efficient technique, obviously: Neptune is a thousand times faster than SpongeBob. Yet, Neptune decides that SpongeBob is the winner, because the audience of the competition found the taste of the Neptunian burgers to be disgusting, while Neptune was amazed about the taste of SpongeBob’s single burger.

The reason why Neptune’s burgers don’t tickle the audience’s palate, as SpongeBob later reveals when he is teaching the God of the Sea, is the lack of love Neptune put into making the burgers. SpongeBob’s lesson for Neptune comes down to: work on a small scale. Put love into every single burger.

This might sound wholesome to many. Should it though?

In a time-constrained business like fry-cooking efficiency clearly also matters. The slow speed at which SpongeBob operates increases the price of burgers, limits the growth of the restaurant he works at and is detrimental for customer satisfaction. Even though Neptune used magic that is not available to anyone besides him, the ruler of Bikini Bottom, a great deal of his cooking techniques could be designed to help anyone become a more efficient cook. Making “love” the lacking ingredient in Neptune’s burger doesn’t live up to increased efficiency! Instead of looking at plausible ways that explain the difference in taste, “love” is accepted as the missing ingredient—no questions asked. Thus, it is implied that a burger that tastes good must’ve taken a long time to prepare, in a 1:1 setting, with a personal connection to the product.

This is just wrong! If one chose to investigate what actually made the difference (e.g. the sauce recipe or how long the patty is fried), one could find a solution that will result in an insanely delicious burger that is also prepared in the blink of an eye. Those properties are not mutually exclusive.

What does all of this have to do with altruism?

Even though charities have increasingly accepted cost-effectiveness as a relevant metric, there often seems to be a preference in donors and volunteers for less efficient ways of helping. I call this “the glorification of inefficiency”. Small-scale interventions, like helping homeless people by handing out food, give people a warm glow—just like watching an adorable sponge drawing faces onto pickle slices with ketchup, tucking them in, and reading them a good night story.

People seem to expect a relationship between visible affection and quality. However, in burgers, quality actually means taste, not love. In charity, quality means “amount of Good done”.


Thanks to Jan Hohenheim for feedback on this post!

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