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.