When you make decisions at a restaurant, you’re exercising your own free will: True or false?
Sorry to take away your agency, but the answer is mostly false. The second you walk into a dinig establishment, you’re being slowly influenced to order the things the restaurant makes the most money selling. There are two ways it happens. One is at the corporate level, where chains design the whole experience to milk you of your money and keep you coming back. This is the realm of enticing photographs on menus, color theory (some say red makes you feel hungrier) or of things like McDonald’s odd mix of inviting design (bright lights that entice you in) and annoying design (the same over-bright lights also make you eat up and get out, and those seats are uncomfortable for a reason).
The other is possibly more interesting, consisting of the tricks used by small establishments to make you spend more.
And like any home-spun psychological theory, these techniques are a mixture of solid advice and hokum.
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A user on the question and answer site Quora recently asked: “How do restaurants use psychology to manipulate our spending and eating habits?” The answers are fascinating.
Let’s start with the menus. Quora member Neil Eisenberg points out that the flowery language used on menus—terms like “handcrafted, triple-basted, slow-cooked, golden-brown, hand-selected”—makes a dish seem more enticing. He also talks about limiting choice to make decisions easier (if you get stressed every time you have to hunt through a 30-page menu in your local Chinese restaurant you’ll appreciate this one).
Eisenberg also mentions decoys, expensive items intended only as a way to make the rest of the list seem cheaper. “Restaurants also use extremely expensive foods as decoys. The rationale being, you probably won’t buy it, but you’ll find something cheaper since it will look more reasonable,” he says.
Quora user Gabriel Lewis calls this trick “anchoring,” and gives the following example to illustrate it.
Surf and Turf…………………..$45.00
Fish and Chips…………………$16.00
Suddenly that $16 fish and chips looks cheap.
I was a waiter, cocktail bartender, and then restauranteur for around 15 years. After that, I designed menus, and although I never worked at the chain-restaurant level, we used plenty of tricks to increase sales of our most profitable items.
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