Behavioural hacks restaurants employ to trick you into spending more.
How the design of the food menu, the names of the food items, shape and size of the utensils influence your behaviour.
I went to a fancy restaurant the other day. I ended up ordering “Lava Tartare Pinnate Dipped in Monte Pesto Sauce.” I had no idea what it was. I just wanted to try something new.
I wasn’t really sure I ate, but it tasted nice. And the kind of presentation it had, you could give them an Oscar for it. When the bill came, I just didn’t understand how I ended up spending so much. But yeah, what the hell, it’s a fancy place. They gotta charge whatever they want. I knew what I as getting into. Or did I?
You usually go to a restaurant to fulfil your gastronomical needs and have a good time. It’s the last place you want to get bamboozled. You know that fancy places overcharge you, but do you know that your brain is being hacked in other ways as well?
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Like most businesses, the goal of restaurants is to make money. It kinda makes sense that restaurants and bars would up the charge, up the ambience and the presentation, and whatever else they can to get you to spend more.
The waiter would be extra nice. He would ask your for starters in the beginning, and suggest desserts when you are done. He would recommend you the costliest wine in the planet, and explain in great details why you just have to taste it. But there are a lot more ways than you might realise in which restaurants can manipulate you.
From the names on the food menu to the size of the plates, establishments can use all kinds of cognitive tricks to influence your eating (i.e., paying) behaviour. Some of them are so hardwired into your System 1 that even after being aware how exactly you are tricked, you would still get fooled the next time you visit.
But knowing is better than not knowing. At least if you know what’s happening, there’s a (slight) chance you can take back control. So read on…
The mind-hacking begins when you get the menu.
Have you ever noticed that a lot of restaurants list prices as plain numbers? Have you ever wondered why they do that? Is it minimalism? Is it part of their visual design principles? Or there’s a bigger agenda here? I noticed that the restaurant I had been to had only a “1750” next to the Lava Tartare…, with no “Dollar” text of $ symbol beside it. In fact it didn’t have any indication that it’s the price.
This is not the work of an aesthetically conscious graphic designer. This is the work of a behaviour designer. Somebody with intentions similar to mine — influence your behaviour. Studies have repeatedly shown that across cultures and countries, people spend more when there’s no currency symbol beside the menu. This works equally well in shopping websites as well. Just putting a number increases conversion compared to when there’s a dollar symbol beside it.
You might be surprised to know that only thinking about money makes you cringe (subconsciously) and can sometimes make you experience a kind of physical pain as well. If you put somebody in a brain scanner and let them trade huge sums of money on stocks, the part of the brain that would light up when they lose money is the same part that feels physical pain.
Removing the currency symbol and even the currency word (Dollar) from menus can increase average spendings at a restaurant by at least 8–12%. This is because people who see only the numerical value, are less concerned about the price of what they are ordering.
Money can literally be a pain in your ass. If it were to be removed, you can order food easily. You’ll feel the pain only when he bill comes. The same thing applies to paying with credit cards — you never see the money go. But the bill eventually comes due.
Also, the numbers are never comma separated. Instead of 1,750, it’s 1750. The comma makes the number look a tad bit big. But if there’s a discount, then the struck-off number usually would have a comma— gives you the impression that the previous amount was huge.
Also, have you wondered what’s with the names of food these days? Have you noticed the customised fancy sounding names food seems to have. It’s like somebody hired a copywriter just to cook up some well sounding names. Gone are the days when the menu had a simple “green salad” or a “chocolate cake.” Now you’ve got “Jackson’s Green Mountain Salad” and “Jimmy’s Chocolate Lake.”
I’m still waiting for “Deadpool’s Chimichangas.” If you know of a place that has it, please reply in the comments.
All these trouble to come with cool sounding names do serve a good purpose. The names act as differentiators. You can get a burger anywhere, but you get a “Morning Jumburger” only at Harry’s. This builds loyalty. The taste remains the same, but you identify with the name, or the brand. So many people love McDonald’s not because of their taste, but because they love McDonald’s.
Next time you come across a fancy sounding name, try translating the names in your head first and then eat. See if you still want to eat there everyday. Adding colourful descriptors can increase sales by up to 27%. You know who’s paying for them Good Will’s Apples.
Have you heard about the Delboeuf Illusion? If you haven’t then it’s very important for you to know how this basic optical illusion is used to fool you.
Restaurants control not only how much you spend but also how much you consume by using optical illusions. How cool!
When two circles of identical size have been placed near to each other and one is surrounded by a ring; the surrounded circle then appears larger than the non-surrounded circle if the ring is close, while appearing smaller than the non-surrounded circle if the ring is distant.
— Delboeuf Illusion
What is food? How is it served in a plate? If you think about it, it’s basically a circular dump in a circular area. Now if you server a small portion of food i.e. a small circle in a large plate i.e. a large circle, the quantity would rather look very small, and you would have felt cheated — forced to pay so much to get so little in the plate.
So what do they do? They give a small circle (of food), in a slightly bigger circle (of plate) and it calms down your brain’s rebellious signals.
It was confirmed in a 2012 study that people in general tend to serve themselves more when they are using large plates, overestimating the portions. With small plates, they serve themselves less.
In fact, the Delboeuf illusion doesn’t just play with your eyes, it tricks your mind into believed that you ate a lot and in fact you feel more full when you eat a meal from a smaller dish. It can be a good way if you are planning to eat less. Food for thought to trick yourself.
And, next time you go to some all-you-can-eat buffet, try and notice the size of the plates. Don’t be surprised if you see small sized platewares — they make you think that you are eating more, when in reality you aren’t.
And if you are going for à la carte, you should note that the main course is served in large platters. They are done so as to convince you that there’s still room for dessert. The more you consume — the more they earn.
Have you ever tried drinking hot chocolate from a wine glass? Try it if you haven’t yet. It’s a weird experience. You are subconsciously expecting the taste of wine, but instead of that you are getting something else. No matter how much you love chocolate, drinking it is a wine glass would definitely feel weird. Most likely you won’t be able to savour the taste and gulp it up in one go.
Because of habit, conditioning and cultural influences, you just can’t seem to enjoy hot chocolate in a wine glass. You will be willing to pay much more for drinks at restaurants when the drinks match your expected shape of glassware.
When there’s a mismatch and your red wine is served in a coffee mug, it creates cognitive dissonance — a psychological stress that arises when there’s a mismatch between your beliefs, habits, attitudes, behaviours in the situation.
Something as trivial as this distresses you — believe it or not. This basically ruins your overall experience and hence you don’t consume much. Most likely you would give that restaurant a very bad rating for poor aesthetic choice.
Let’s talk about more drinks. Do you drink beer? Why is it always served in a straight glass? Have you tried wine? Why is it served in a round glass? Which one do you drink faster — beer? Which one usually has lesser quantity in the glass — wine?
Do you know that certain shapes can also get you to drink faster? Do you know that you drink beer faster from curved glasses than straight ones.
Usually your brain takes a shortcut to judge how much liquid is left in a glass. You tend to look at how far up the glass the liquid in it reaches, even if the glass is much wider at the top. And it’s not a coincidence that almost all beer glasses have wider tops.
The glass isn’t straight. And you usually don’t consider the angle. By the time you think that you’ve finished half of the beer, you’re actually much more than halfway through. At last you might end up finishing your drink much faster than you wanted. The faster you drink, the faster you need to refills, and the sooner you get drunk. All this happens so subtly and so fast that you are tricked every time.
It’s also funny when you tend to think that tall and skinny glasses hold more liquid than short and fat ones. They don’t!
This false beliefs makes you pour more into short and fat glasses, and you eventually drink more from them. Between a tall glass and a fat one, you usually drink more from the fat one — about 88% more.
It arises due to another optical illusion. The Horizontal-Vertical Illusion — vertical lines seem longer than horizontal ones.
Your visual field is wider than it is tall. So, like, a line of the same length takes up a greater percentage of what you see vertically than it does horizontally, which makes you think it’s bigger. The tall looks taller than it really is. Try to fight this illusion the next time you pour a drink. It’s really hard.
Do you know how sharp objects taste? How would round ones taste? Take a guess!
Restaurants can influence the taste of your food based on the shape it is served in. They use the tactic of Shape Symbolism — you tend to associate roundness with sweetness and angles with bitterness. Black chocolate bars usually have sharper edges, unlike the milky sweet one which have rounder edges generally.
People generally conflate bitterness and physical sharpness because they can both be signs of danger. Shape symbolism can make you perceive chocolate cut into rounds as sweeter than the exact same bar in chunks, or beer from a curved glass as fruitier. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
There’s something known as Sensation Transference and a lot of flavour manipulation comes form this. You unconsciously tend to transfer the properties of the platewares or utensils to the food you eat from it. Spooky!
You do know that blue is a cool colour and yellow is a warm colour. If you want to make soda taste cooler and more refreshing, you can put it in a cool-coloured container. That’s what all restaurants do.
Even the heft of your cutlery can make a difference. You automatically associate weight with quality. Ice cream would taste better if you eat it with a silver spoon than when you eat with a plastic spoon. Fancy restaurants will always have heavy plates. Plastic plates have a flimsy appearance and would make the restaurant look cheap.
In one study, researchers presented 60 people with a salad of the exact same ingredients in three formats: tossed, neatly sorted, and arranged to look like a famous Kandinsky painting. Before they even tried it, participants said they knew they’d like the artistic salad more, and ultimately, they rated it 29% tastier than the other salads. Food tastes better when presented artistically. Go figure!
So if you’re trying to reduce how much you eat and drink — or how much you spend in a restaurant — you might want to keep an eye out for some of these tricks the next time you go out to eat or meet up at the bar with your friends.
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What did I miss? Do you know of any other psychological hack that a restaurant can use to trick people into paying more — do write in the comments, or you can email me as well. I read and reply to all of them.
I’m always on the lookout for knowledge. If you find any article, a book, or a research paper worth reading, please do share. I won’t forget to thank you in a future post. Thanks a tonne for reading.
About the author:
Hi, I’m Abhishek. I’ve written 50+ essays which have been featured and quoted in Lifehacker, Psychology Today, ACM Digital Library, Springer, and Interaction Design Foundation.
P.S. In case you are wondering about the validity of what I you’ve just read, here’s a list of 15 research studies that I’ve referred to:
- $ or Dollars: Effects of Menu-price Formats on Restaurant Checks
- Effect of ambience on food intake and food choice
- How Descriptive Menu Labels Influence Attitudes and Repatronage
- Plate Size and Color Suggestibility: The Delboeuf Illusion’s Bias on Serving and Eating Behavior
- Ratings of Pleasantness and Intensity for Beverages Served in Containers Congruent and Incongruent with Expectancy
- Bottoms Up! The Influence of Elongation on Pouring and Consumption Volume
- Beverage perception and consumption: The influence of the container on the perception of the contents
- Glass shape influences the flavour of beer
- Assessing the shape symbolism of the taste, flavour, and texture of foods and beverages
- Kitchenscapes, Tablescapes, Platescapes, and Foodscapes: Influences of Microscale Built Environments on Food Intake
- The Effect of Glass Colour on the Evaluation of a Beverage’s Thirst-Quenching Quality
- Does the weight of the dish influence our perception of food?
- Plating manifesto (II): the art and science of plating
- Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake
- Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers
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