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Stop Being Fooled By Restaurant Manipulation: Menu Engineering Tricks

    Man and woman romantically looking at each and holding hands at a restaurant table.

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    Many restaurants are using the latest behavioral economics research to trick you to spend more money when dining out. They even manipulate your ordering decisions. Forcing you to “choose” items THEY want you to.

    Here’s what you need to watch out for in this latest trend and the psychology behind why these tricks are so successful on us.

    Many restaurants have come out with high-end dishes that they’ve added to their menus. However, they’re not really there to be ordered, but only to make the rest of the menu “appear” more reasonably priced. You get anchored to the highest prices and contrast the rest of the menu downwards from this.

    Suddenly, a $46 entree makes a $36 one look somewhat cheap and moves your decision making towards it. Free choice is an illusion.

    “But what makes the rise of the $40 entree so significant is not just the price creep, it’s the sophisticated calculation behind it. A new breed of menu “engineers” have proved that highly priced entrees increase revenue even if no one orders them.”

    Menu engineering has now become a lucrative field.

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    Restaurants have also started removing the “$” sign from the prices to make us less conscious about spending money.

    Both these tricks work on our automatic and fast mental process, System 1 [1]. Exposure to the high-priced entree immediately anchors that price in our minds. Anything lower than that appears reasonable. Humans make most economic decisions irrationally. Mostly through perceived differences rather than absolute values.

    The absence of a “$” before the prices, lets our subconscious guard down. We experience less aversion to the numerical value as a price barrier to order the dish. We now focus less on the price of the dish but on the fanciful description of it which garners our interest.

    When we are manipulated through System 1 thinking, there is little we can do to prevent this sort of influence.

    Especially after a few glasses of wine, which have the same tricks on their list prices.

    Just surrender and enjoy the meal.

    Finally, to squeeze the last bit of money out of you, they’ve been using this trick for a while now – give you some mint with your check. Due to our subconscious desire to reciprocate when we receive something (mint in this case), we feel obligated to give back. Studies have clearly shown that increasing tips can be obtained by giving patrons two verses one piece of candy [2].


    1. Thinking, Fast and Slow By Daniel Kahneman, Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, NY 2011.
    2. Strohmetz, D. B.; Rind, B.; Fisher, R; Lynn, M. “Sweetening the Till: The Use of Candy to Increase Restaurant Tipping” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2002, 32, 300-309.

    If you want to improve your influencing skills (and sound intelligent at the dinner table), these books will help you do exactly that:

    Best books to improve your influencing and persuasion skills

    Shaun Mendonsa, PhD is an influencing expert and pharmaceutical development leader. He writes on the topics of influence and persuasion, and develops next generation drugs in human pharma by advising international pharmaceutical CROs and CMOs. He can be reached at [email protected].


    Behavioral economics, Restaurant pricing, Social psychology, Menu engineering

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