Mind games on the menu: The psychological tricks restaurants use to part us from our money

It's all too much to do: you're sitting down at your restaurant table at the same time as trying to regale someone with a witty anecdote about the crashing price of oilseed rape, and before you know it you've ordered starters, main course, wine. You think little of it until the time comes to pay and the bill is equivalent to the GDP of an oligarch-free former Soviet republic. So why is it so easy to overspend in restaurants?

Well, according to William Poundstone, the American author of Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), published next January, one of the main factors leading us to purchase certain food items is the way they are presented to us – on the menu, for example.

Menus, he says, employ a litany of psychological tricks to ensnare the unwary diner. With a combination of pictures, bold fonts and careful positioning of items, the savvy restaurant owner will have you parting with your cash quicker than you can say: "Hey! It's still 10 days until pay-day!"

In his analysis, he reveals various terms used in such dupe-ology, including "puzzles, anchors, stars and plowhorses".

"A star is a popular, high-profit item; in other words, an item for which customers are willing to pay a good deal more than it costs to make," he explains. "A puzzle is high-profit, but unpopular. A plowhorse is the opposite – popular yet unprofitable. Marketing consultants employed to assemble many of the most high-profile restaurants' menus try to turn puzzles into stars, nudge customers away from plowhorses, and convince everyone that the prices on the menu are more reasonable than they look."

Poundstone says it's not just restaurants committing such consumer crimes: supermarkets use loyalty cards to work out how often people like buying different things, so that they know which items they can raise the price of without anyone noticing. "If you buy hamburger all week they know that, so they don't raise the price of it because you would notice," he explains. "They only raise the price on things you might buy every so often. So they advertise all the discounts, but really that is how they make their money."

There is also the classic '99p' rule. "That can be a big motivator," he continues. "Psychological studies have suggested that people are more likely to buy something that is £29 than something that is £25. One of the theories is that with £29 we think it was originally £30 but it has been discounted." Then, there are classic principles regarding eye-level of the shop display. "If it has a photograph and is at eye-level, then we're more likely to buy it," he continues. "It's the same with restaurants and pictures of food."

He goes on to explain why Starbucks gives its coffees mystifying names like tall, grande and venti. "Psychological studies have shown that when consumers are given a choice like this, and when they don't have a compelling reason to pick one over the other, they pick the middle option," he says. "Starbucks has considerable power to nudge customers into ordering however big a coffee they'd like to sell, just by making it the middle size of three options. You'll see a lot of three-way choices like this elsewhere, with pizzas, fast-food and soft drinks."

Poundstone's book refers to a swathe of academic research. The definitive study was published in 1983 by Joel Huber and Christopher Puto, of Duke University in North Carolina. "They had people choose between a bargain beer that cost $1.80 and a premium beer that cost $2.60," he explains. "Everyone was informed that quality rose with price. About two-thirds of the people were willing to spring for the better beer. Then Huber and Puto repeated the experiment, except that this time there was third choice, a rock-bottom cheap beer costing $1.60. This time nearly half the people chose the original bargain beer – the $1.80 one, which was now the "middle" option. The super-cheap beer 'legitimised' the moderately cheap one, and more were willing to buy it."

He says, "The Huber-Puto experiment is now a classic of marketing science. It shows that, in many contexts, consumers really don't know what they want and can be manipulated by the way a choice is presented."

With a restaurant meal being among the most glaring examples of consumers being swindled out of their hard-earned cash, what are the menu "tricks" used to lure in the unwary diner? Here Poundstone explains how to tell your genuine bargain from your pocket-burners.

Upper right-hand corner

"The first thing people do when they open the menu is look at its upper right-hand corner," Poundstone explains. "A variety of the experts I consulted reckon the geography of the menu is very important when people decide what they are going to have," he continues. Eateries tend to place in the menu's top right-hand corner an item which is high-profit and has great tone-setting significance. This 'anchor' is often an expensive item like a plate of seafood. "They don't care whether they sell a lot of it because it's so costly," continues the author. "If you're going to blow a lot of money on it, it will be the chef's lucky day." The item is in fact mainly there to elevate in people's minds the price of what it is reasonable to pay across the rest of the menu – if you subsequently spot a £30 steak it won't seem so extravagantly priced. "If you start putting high numbers out, then people raise their estimations of what's reasonable." When we're making split-second decisions, he says, the effects of 'anchoring' are heightened.

Pictures

"There's a big taboo about pictures in classy restaurants – you wouldn't normally get them in the classy places," says Poundstone. "But they can be very powerful motivators. If there's a picture of an entrée you are much more likely to order it. It's generally just the high-profit stuff that has pics, because it costs money, though it's a very good way of pressing the button."

Bundling

"The whole idea of 'prix fixe', or the 'combo' meals that you might get in fast-food restaurants, is that for a given price it is harder to compare what you're getting," he explains. "If it's £30 for two scallops, it's easy for you to work out that you're being cheated. But if they say £30 for two scallops and vegetables and something else, it's hard to work out how much you have paid for each thing."

The benefit of boxes

Boxes are a simple way of getting people's attention. Restaurants often box off things that are high-profit. The opposite of that is 'menu Siberia', which are the items which are not high-profit but which restaurant owners do not want to take off the menu in case their regular customers go somewhere else to get them. They might have text explaining them. "Fewer people will order them, but if they want to find them they will."

The price comparison cheat

"You don't want to list all of your items in a straight column running down the page because it's really easy for the customer to see what the cheapest thing is and then order that," says the writer. He also says that dots leading from the item to the price are generally avoided because it aids in easy comparison between different items on the menu. "All of this sounds quite silly when you first hear it," he adds. "But 99 per cent of the decisions we make in our lives are not all that important. When you're ordering you're probably paying attention to the conversation you're having and you're not really paying attention to what you're ordering. So these subtle changes can make a big difference to an owner's profit margins. All of this is based on a series of psychological experiments involving people looking at a screen and making choices with different menu systems. Very respected economists have done research into who makes what choices, and it's been picked up by people who are looking to earn a quick buck."

The right next-door

The 'anchor' often has a slightly cheaper, yet still expensive, item placed next to it. Comparatively, the second item now seems like a bargain.

Meal for two

"These are some of the most expensive things on the menu," explains Poundstone. "A lot of people figure that this is probably a good deal. That's not always the case. You have to divide by two to compare, and if you're in a restaurant trying to make witty conversation you probably aren't going to bother to do that division in your head. It's a very slight smokescreen, but it's enough to make you not pay attention to what you are paying."

Offering a choice of portion size

"You're offered the same dish in different sizes, and it's a kind of can't-win proposition," he says. "People often opt for the cheaper option to save money, but often that size is half of a proper portion. But if you think it's not enough food you can't complain because you went for it. It often encourages people to upgrade their portion and pay double the money. It's a kind of 'heads I win, tails you lose' scenario."

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