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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 01=08-Feb-15

 


Sunday 08-February-15

Guarding the royal potato. Or not.

Potatoes are staples of many diets, though at one time there were none at all outside of South America. In 1532, the Spanish invaded the land we now know as Peru. Though they didn't realize it at the time, one of the most valuable things they found there was the humble potato. By 1600, it has spread throughout Europe, especially the colder climates where many other plants will not grow. Sadly, though, not everyone thought it fit for human consumption and it was often used just as animal feed. The Russian Orthodox church even banned them simply because they were, quite naturally, not mentioned in the Bible.

A particular fan of the potato was King Frederick  II of Prussia, who fed them to his troops in the mid 18th century wars. However, when he offered them to his subjects during the 1774 famine, they were less than enthusiastic, typically declaring that "The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?" Even when Frederick threatened to cut the nose and ears off any peasant who did not plant potatoes they still refused. Facing an unpopular mass amputation, Frederick changed his tactics to something rather more effective.

Frederick's new approach was to declare the potato a royal vegetable and place guards around the royal potato field, though they were also instructed not to guard the potatoes too closely. The local population, now banned from eating potatoes decided that if they were good enough for the king, they were certainly good enough for the peasants. Sneaking past the incautious guards, locals managed to 'capture' some potato plants and started secretly growing their own. Before long, there was a huge underground market in in potatoes, which Frederick was forced to openly accept and eventually magnanimously legitimize.

The basic tactic that Frederick used was a combination of exclusivity, scarcity and social proof, a powerful cocktail based on the principle that we want what we cannot get, especially when our superiors are using it.


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