Decision points at dinner- letter to a friend


So I made quite a few interesting observations today at dinner based on some of the ideas I’ve picked up recently and I thought I’d share them with you. So some background first:

There’s something behavioral economists call a ‘nudge’; In this particular case, I saw it as a simple and cheap intervention by the restaurant, to keep a check on how much we eat. The restaurant will ideally be looking to cut losses or make more of a profit by ensuring that we don’t exploit the ‘unlimited servings’ feature by eating in excess. These nudges so to speak, don’t directly alter any of the choice variables, they simply change the way in which these choices are presented so as to provoke a desirable change in our consumption patterns.

Lets take an example. Lets assume that you have willingly consumed a litre of soup in a bowl. Common sense and intuition suggest that you should be just as likely to consume two bowls with half a litre of soup each(It is the same quantity of soup after all right?). The split into two containers shouldn’t affect your choice. Behavioral economics notes how this is often violated.

What actually happens?- There is a higher tendency to stop consumption after the first bowl of soup when it is presented as two bowls, than when it is served in one; You might have finished the entire amount if it were provided as a single serving. This is due to our inability to perfectly attach value to what we consume. We are impulsive and make choices in the moment. We often don’t care enough to compute that our ‘optimal level of soup consumption’ is less than a litre, and so we consume the entire litre.

When you split the soup into two bowls however, you are creating what is known as a decision point. The decision point presents a hurdle which allows the consumer to stop and deliberate on his consumption process. He switches from what is called automatic mode of consumption to deliberative mode of consumption. Decision points are therefore effective nudges, and can be used to achieve desirable consumption outcomes.

This brings me to an observation I made at the dessert counter. You may have noticed how all the servings were extremely small in size. Irrespective of whether it was done intentionally or not, what it manages is to do is create several decision points for us. After each portion, we are switched back into deliberation mode where we are forced to contemplate if we really should get up and go get that next microscopic portion of chocolate mousse. This ensures that we eat only as much dessert as we really want to. It helps prevent unnecessary overeating, which is something we are very prone to especially at an all-you-can-eat restaurant. If the dessert portions had been bigger in size, chances are, dessert consumed per diner as well as total dessert consumed(including wastage) would have been significantly higher.

Further reading: Decision points- A theory emerges- Dilip Soman, Jing Xu and Amar Cheema(2010)

Also, Did you notice how the dessert counter was designed such that only 2–3 people had the space to help themselves at a given point? This also acts a consumption regulating nudge, since it levies some sort of negative transaction cost on the consumers by requiring them to wait in line. This transaction cost does not entail any actual payment and is merely psychological. It operates on the notion that human beings are impatient. It induces the questions- ‘Do I really need to eat another portion? Is it worth the wait?’. If the dessert counter was more spread out and easily accessible, perhaps people would not think twice before eating more dessert.