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Don’t Get Fooled By Those Sneaky Menu Engineers…

September 15th, 2009 · 8 Comments
Behavioral Econ · Books · Decision Making

In case you’ve forgotten, I study behavioral economics. Under this heading comes the psychology of consumption, and when talking about consumption we can’t ignore the issue of pricing. I suppose that it’s also true that when talking about consumption we can’t ignore the issue of, well, literal consumption, i.e. food.

You may recall that I had an article under “Best of the Web” on the left sidebar that talked about how taking currency symbols off of menus gets consumers to spend more money. This isn’t entirely shocking, since it’s the gastronomical equivalent of using poker chips rather than wads of cash at a casino- the more removed you feel from the actual money, the more willing you are to throw it around.

Apparently these sorts of ideas are catching on and giving birth to an entire field called “menu engineering.” Consider an article entitled “What We Can Learn About Pricing From Menu Engineers”:

Rapp is a menu engineer. He helps restaurants maximize revenue by hacking common flaws in human decision-making. For example, by simply removing “$” signs from prices, people are less intimidated by them. And he advises against listing items from least to most expensive, because that focuses the consumer on price. Instead he mixes up items, making it hard to find their price — thereby encouraging the customer to emotionally commit to something before finding out what it costs. But my favorite strategy of his is that of putting some absurdly expensive item on the menu. Rapp doesn’t expect many consumers to buy it, but having it there makes expensive items appear cheap by comparison. Think about it: How many times have you ordered a bottle of wine in the middle of the price range?

The whole article is interesting, and you should read it. I have to admit that, while I certainly have a “buyer beware” mentality towards markets in general, I don’t particularly like that my field of study is getting attention for essentially figuring out how to manipulate consumers. I suppose it’s a lesson to the consumer to be informed enough about potential manipulations to be able to avoid them. On that note, I recommend Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink- it’s an easy read, and it outlines a number of “food lab” experiments that show how easily people are manipulated by their surroundings into eating more, less or just differently. My favorite is the bottomless soup bowl experiment where Wansink got people to eat absurd quantities of tomato soup by rigging the system such that the soup bowl never emptied. (I think I like it because Wansink is quick to note that he first tried the apparatus with chicken noodle soup but had to abandon that plan because the noodles kept getting stuck in the tubes.) I also liked the reactions I got when I used Mindless Eating as my lunchtime book. I was just a viral Internet photo waiting to happen…

For those of you who are more visually inclined, here is a video clip from the Today Show on the topic of menu engineering:

I love how the reporters try to be all sensationalistic with comments like “Turns out these, and many other menus, are loaded with secret psychological strategies…” Uh, yeah…so secret that you’re easily able to find out about them and discuss them on national television. In any case, now you have both the knowledge to avoid manipulation and something to talk about over cocktails next time you go out to dinner. You’re welcome. 🙂

Tags: Behavioral Econ · Books · Decision Making

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 SteveO // Sep 15, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    You might want to “manupulate” your spelling.
    Otherwise, good article.

  • 2 BradyDale // Sep 16, 2009 at 11:23 am

    I’m sure you’ve covered this before, but it reminds me of what grocery stores and Wal-Marts and Targets do on a much larger scale.

    I’ve heard Target has a whole store that they move around all the time and constantly experiment with the layout to maximize how much people spend.

    My feelings about this are very mixed. I got into these stores and always buy more than I had planned on it, but I still feel like I usually buy lots of stuff I need but just don’t ever remember that I need until I go into a store that sort of reminds me how normal people live.

    of course, unlike a lot of people, I go to these stores once every four months. Unlike folks where I grew up in Kansas who went at least weekly. I guess that’s a much greater exposure to manipulation.

  • 3 Felicity // Sep 27, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Fascinating post: that clip was hilarious (who’d have thought that those mouthwatering descriptions on menus were designed to attract customers?) but also interesting in terms of layout and visual tricks to manipulate the customer. Next time I’m going for the lobster frittata to fox the Rapps of these world.

  • 4 Carter // Oct 19, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    Great article. I found out an interesting piece of information in working with people who put on investor conferences. I’m not giving names! But I have been a guest speaker for a few years at some of these, and one thing the coordinators found through split campaign testing was that more investors signed up for the conference paying a few thousand dollars than they did at a few hundred dollars. I don’t remember the specific price point they determined to get the most people in, but it was interesting nonetheless. It seems that by charging more for the conference the perceived value was greater. I also noticed that as a finance professional when I offer certain free services investors didn’t seem to put much weight on them so I ended up wasting a lot of time, but when I started charging customers for the same services they seemed more likely to use the advice in their investment decisions. This is purely anecdotal, but to me I noticed a big difference when charging instead of offering free.

  • 5 Carter // Oct 19, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Pardon my lack of consistency in tense. 🙁

  • 6 Klaire // Nov 16, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Menu Engineering doesn’t make people do things they don’t want to do. It helps people find things that are good on the menu so they can enjoy their meal and come back again. A good design will make it easier for people to not have to think a bunch while trying to figure out what they want to eat and what is good at the restaurant. This is especially important for smaller restaurant chains who first time customers might not be familiar with. For more information on Menu Engineering see our website at

  • 7 connecticut trash pickup // Apr 24, 2012 at 9:01 am

    There are certainly plenty of particulars like that to take into consideration. That may be a nice point to deliver.

  • 8 Antje // Jan 29, 2015 at 2:21 am

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