The Psychology of the Dinner Menu

4 minute read
Tristan Stephenson is the author of The Curious Bartender: The Artistry and Alchemy of Creating the Perfect Cocktail and an award-winning operator of a growing chain of restaurants and bars in the UK.

A large part of the pleasure derived from browsing a restaurant’s menu, or selecting a wine, can be attributed to the sense of freedom provided by choice. Choice defines us, it supports our self-image, and it’s the gauge with which our friends and work colleagues evaluate our character, mood, and intellect.

This is all well and good, but what if the sensation of choice is actually an illusion? What if our gut feelings (pun intended — some of our what-to-eat decisions are undoubtedly driven by messages sent directly from the gut) are in fact controlled by a spectrum of influences and associations that, for the most part, we are all completely oblivious to?

A good waiter might recommend that madame” try the prawn cocktail but the thought that the prawns may be getting a little long in tooth is, more often than not, brushed under the cognitive carpet by an easier to stomach belief: the waiter as a reliable source of food related counsel. Then there is the boxing, circling, or general advertising of “House Special” dishes. Most of us would consider ourselves wise to such an overt marketing tactic, but the mind takes the position that the restaurant has our best interests at heart, choosing to ignore that special items are probably the establishment’s better earners. The stats show that a featured item will almost always outperform one that is not, and I know of some restaurants who offer incentives to staff who successfully sell-in key menu items. Where food is concerned we are susceptible to even quite obvious exertions of influence.

Did you know that we place more trust in menus that have a broad contrast of ink to paper tone? You probably didn’t until you read it just now (on a correctly contrasted screen or piece of paper, I hope) but from an early age your mind has been wise to this fact and has, unknown to you, pulled the appropriate strings to influence your decisions accordingly. The size and weight of the menu can also affect our choosing, where heavyweight binders suggest that the meal will carry some weight too.

Fancy some lemon tart to finish? Was it really freedom of choice that steered the decision, or is it the yellow tie that the waiter has been swinging in front of your face all evening? You might not have registered the tie consciously, but your subconscious mind filed the data nonetheless. Then, when asked for your dessert choice, since no obvious answer could be immediately given your mind answered a similar question, “What color dessert would I like?” — a much easier question to answer.

In psychological circles the “yellow tie” scenario is known as a primer — a subtle influence that our unconscious mind uses to generate quick responses to the problems with which we are presented. Priming effects are not limited to the physical dining experience either, it might be the smell of frying bacon on your walk to the restaurant, the aromas of which whisper in your ear as your eyes glance over that surprisingly tempting barbecue pork bun. Or a child, who in the discovery of the Pyramids of Giza in class that day, enthusiastically requests pizza for dinner after school (triangular shaped slices, of course).

I experienced this first hand earlier in the year. On the outside wall of one of my restaurants (which specialises in lobster and steak) we hung a 12ft sign that reads in bold, black uppercase:




The decision to do this was driven by the notion that a zero-bull, honest approach to our food (we don’t cater well for vegetarians) would help build trust with our guests. What the sign actually did was plant a mental checklist in the unconscious minds of our patrons suggesting that “meat, fish and drink” were essential purchases. The booze-filled carnivorous blow-outs that followed may have been unrelated, but there are hundreds of psychological studies that would indicate otherwise.

Perhaps the most recent factor to impact choice is everyone’s favourite dining partner: the smartphone. Today, our choices are digitally shared, assessed and graded with such ease and frequency that rapid feedback from peers regulates ever-more precise choices for future dilemmas. If this is true then choices should be much easier to make. Or they would be, if there weren’t so many damn things to choose from.

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