Menu Psychology: Does The Mind Know What the Tongue Wants?

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“When it comes to choosing food and drink, as an influential psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz once said: ‘The mind knows not what the tongue wants.’”

In a recent article, the Guardian’s Amy Fleming discusses restaurant menu “over-choice” as one method restaurateurs use to persuade diners into ordering high-profit meals.

Fleming suggests the recent trend for tapas-style sharing plates may actually be a reaction to escape the decision-making pressure, and cites new research from Bournemouth University that indicates most menus crowd in far more dishes than people want to choose from.

Bournemouth University’s new study explores issues surrounding menu choices. “We were trying to establish the ideal number of starters, mains and puddings on a menu,” says Professor John Edwards.

Fleming claims the study’s findings show restaurant customers, across all ages and genders, do have an optimum number of menu items — below, which they feel there’s too little choice, and above which it all becomes disconcerting.

“In fast-food joints, people wanted six items per category, while in fine dining establishments, they preferred seven starters and desserts, and 10 main courses.”

Professor Brian Wansink, author of “Slim by Design, Mindless Eating Solutions to Every Day Life,” has researched what he calls menu engineering. “What ends up initially catching the eye,” he says, “has an unfair advantage over anything a person sees later on.”

Wansink points out that we scan the menu in a z-shaped fashion (like we do a web page) starting at the top-left hand corner. But we’re easily interrupted by items in boxes, pictures, icons, and bolded text or different colors.

Fleming also mentions research that finds classical music increases sales of expensive wines and overall spending in posh eateries, while French and German music increases sales of French and German wines.

“Slow music, and the scent of lavender, makes people spend longer in restaurants and pop music at 70-90dB will up the consumption of soft drinks. And diners ate more at a breakfast buffet if the room smelled of grilled bacon.”

The author William Poundstone commented on the menu from Balthazar in New York, exposing the marketing techniques used to persuade customers into parting with the maximum amount of cash.

“By putting high-profit items next to the extremely expensive anchor, they seem cheap by comparison. So, what the restaurant wants you to buy is the £43 Le Grand plate to the left of it. It’s a similar story with wine. We’ll invariably go for the second cheapest. Set menus, or bundles, meanwhile, seem like good value and therefore give us an excuse to eat and spend more.”

A few years back, Poundstone examined this menu (pdf) for New York restaurant Balthazar, to reveal some classic tricks of menu psychology.

The following was extracted from “Priceless: the Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It” by William Poundstone.

1 The upper right-hand corner

The typical diner will look here first, and Balthazar isn’t taking any chances, with a picture drawing the eye to the most expensive dishes. Photographs are among the most powerful motivators but, extensively used in low-end chain restaurants, they are considered death to any place with foodie pretensions. Balthazar’s tasteful drawing is about as far as a restaurant of this calibre can go.

2 The price anchor

Menu consultants use this prime space for high-profit items, and price “anchors”, in this case the Le Balthazar seafood plate, for $115 (£70). By putting high-profit items next to the extremely expensive anchor, they seem cheap by comparison. So, the triple-figure price here is probably to induce customers to go for the $70 (£43) Le Grand plate to the left of it, or the more modest seafood orders below it.

3 Bonus boxes

A box around a menu item draws the diner’s attention. Is $16 (£10)such an indulgence for a shrimp cocktail, they might think? Not next to a $115 extravaganza! A really fancy box is better yet. The cheeses at the bottom are probably high-profit “puzzles”.

4 Columns are a no-no

The most common menu mistake is listing prices in a column, as here, because it encourages diners to choose from the cheapest items, instead of choosing what they want and then deciding if it’s worth it. But at least the Balthazar menu doesn’t use leader dots, which draw the diners’ gaze away from the dishes to the prices.

5 Menu Siberia

Unprofitable items, such as the easy-to-miss burgers, can be “minimised” by exiling them to inconspicuous positions – menu Siberia.

6 Bracketing

This is a common trick whereby items are offered in two sizes. The customer isn’t told how much smaller the small portion is, but no matter. They assume the smaller size is attractively priced because, um, it costs less. In reality, this is the size that the restaurant wanted to sell all along, and the “lower price” is what they intended to charge for it.

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper


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