Toothpaste: The Ideal Feedback Mechanism

Toothpaste: we all use it (hopefully) at least twice a day.

Toothpaste is big business. The global toothpaste market in 2015 was estimated at US$12.6 Billion. That’s similar to GDPs of countries such as Albania, Mozambique and Burkina Faso.

Promoting toothpaste is big business as well. Annually P&G spends $192 million on advertising for Crest alone in the USA.

Dentists and other dental professionals promote and encourage people to use toothpaste (sometimes a particular brand and not entirely for free).

Yet, the not so hidden secret about toothpaste is that, in itself, it does very little (close to nothing) for your teeth.

Toothpaste, in itself, has no clinical (real) added value to tooth care.

When you brush your teeth, the benefit comes (almost) exclusively from the mechanical act of brushing. Toothpaste manufacturers spend billions of dollars world-wide to tell us that their brand has miraculous benefits for our teeth, but this is simply advertising.

As a matter of fact, toothpaste, actually, can damage your teeth. Some toothpastes can be abrasive which leads to a deterioration (mechanical damage) of your tooth enamel.

In spite of toothpaste’s lack of direct benefit, it is a wonderful product that helps billions to keep their teeth reasonably healthy.

Although it has no direct benefit, toothpaste (only) brings the positive feedback of fresh-breath / fresh taste to the behavior that is actually beneficial for dental health – that is brushing your teeth. Without toothpaste, the simple act of just brushing teeth would lack the intrinsic positive feedback – having a pleasant taste and a fresh breath.

From a behavioral science perspective, the most relevant feature of toothpaste is that it pairs feedback with behavior and not the outcome. The pleasant taste comes with the act of brushing, not with the fact of having healthy teeth.

There also is a certain degree of variability in the feedback toothpaste gives. While there always is positive feedback, the amount of “benefit” varies to some extent (most likely being related to what one ate).

Social Dimension

Toothpaste has a social dimension as well. The huge majority uses it and it pretty much is the social norm to use it.

Most importantly, bad breath is a repellent when it comes to social interactions and mate attraction. Thus, using toothpaste and subsequently brushing teeth brings social feedback as well.


Although Toothpaste is More Expensive than Whiskey, Using Toothpaste is reasonably cheap and feels like it’s free.

The actual price per litter (in The Netherlands) is about €39 ($159 / gallon). Just to give some references: in The Netherlands with €39 you can buy a bottle of good whisky. In the US with $159 one can buy at least 70 gallons of gas (petrol).

However, using toothpaste is reasonably cheap because one uses only a few milliliters for every brushing. Moreover, we don’t pay for toothpaste every time we use it, thus using it seems free at the time behavior occurs.

Toothpaste is the ideal feedback mechanism – cheap (almost free), tied to the desired behavior (brushing teeth), that has a social dimension and that is big business.

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