Food and the psychology of choice

Image Credit:  USDA Gov  (Visualhunt)

Image Credit: USDA Gov (Visualhunt)

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Imagine sitting in a restaurant and perusing a menu. Find only a few options for your meal and you are likely to be put off – this feels restrictive, uncreative and unfulfilling. But open a menu to find countless choices and you are likely to be overwhelmed, unable to possibly pick just one dish. Both scenarios often end negatively, with the customer either leaving to try somewhere else, or having a less-than-exemplary consumer experience.

All of this is down to choice, and choice in the restaurant industry is a matter of delicate balance. Hubspot suggests that choice is “the purest expression of free will - the freedom to choose allows us to shape our lives exactly how we wish.” But why is the flexibility of choice so important to us? Understanding the psychology of choice is one of the most important things a proprietor can do to ensure every customer enjoys their dining experience, maximising profits at the same time.

In the article “Why having choices makes us feel powerful” in, Psychology Today, the answer to the question of food choice begins to become more clear: “Even though it’s not necessarily true, we equate having choices with having control. Our survival instincts tell us that we'll survive if we have control… We want to feel that we are powerful and that we have choices.” The piece concludes, “If you want people to do stuff, give them options.” This is becoming something of a mantra in the eating out industry.

How consumers make choices

Image credit:  Artmim  (Shutterstock)

Image credit: Artmim (Shutterstock)

But how do customers make these all-important choices? This is a subject to which an entire field of study has been dedicated. ‘Choice theory’ is the theory of how decisions are made. The psychological term was coined by William Glasser, and denotes his assertion that all choices are made as a means of satisfying five innate human needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. Although these may seem like grand concepts, even the activity of eating is greatly influenced by these impulses, be it human interest in eating socially for belonging or the wish for choice as a form of freedom.

This framework is enhanced by rational choice theory. This school of thought is used to model social and economic behaviour, and suggests that individuals will always choose whichever option they are presented that will maximise their interests and provide them with the greatest utility, or benefit.

However, Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, says, “Choice is just as much about who people are as it is about what the product is.” This indicates that choices are not simply about and individual’s wants and needs, but about their personality and values. Even when choices are difficult to make, the attitudes informing them are created quickly, as we tend to “anchor” our decisions based around the first piece of information we receive on a situation or entity.

So how are choices influenced? Time explains that the major process impacting the decisions people make are called ‘primers’ or small details that work in the subconscious to create mental associations leading to choice influence. The example they give is that a waiter wearing a yellow tie may subconsciously encourage a customer to buy a lemon tart. They describe the fact that, in the dining experience, “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.”


A major player in the process of choice influence is bias. In 2001, Frederic Brochet conducted a study with 54 participants, in which he asked volunteers to rate two bottles of red wine, telling them only that one was expensive and one was cheap. The truth was that Brochet had filled both bottles with the same cheap wine, but nonetheless, participants described what they believed to be the expensive wine as “complex and rounded,” but the cheap wine as “weak and flat”, Hubspot report.

Similar forms of bias are exercised often in the restaurant industry. As Time explains, “the stats show that a featured item will almost always outperform one that is not”, concluding that “where food is concerned we are susceptible to even obvious exertions of influence.” Even when bias is clear, then, its allure cannot always be resisted.

Choice overload

Image credit:  Rido  (Shutterstock)

Image credit: Rido (Shutterstock)

Although a variety of choice is of course integral for every restaurant or bar, the idea of choice overload is very much real. In her TED talk “How to Make Choosing Easier,” expert Sheena Iyengar describes how, in a study she conducted at a grocery store in Palo Alto, which carried 348 varieties of jam, she discovered that:

“When the booth had six varieties of jam, patrons were 33% less likely to stop and sample the products than if 24 varieties were displayed. But the patrons who stopped at the six-variety booth were six times more likely to buy jam than the patrons who stopped at the 24-variety booth.”

Diverse options are important to cater to a wide consumer base, but overloading menus can be detrimental. Mental Floss say claims the ‘golden number’ is a maximum of seven options per food category – seven appetisers, seven entrees – perfectly balancing variety and ease.

What motivates food choice?

In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Dr. Barry Schwartz divides consumers into two groups based on their decision-making habits. He calls these groups “maximisers” and “satisficers”. “Maximisers”, he says are perfectionists, prioritising finding the perfect choice in situations as small as choosing a gallon of milk. According to his research, these people agonize over decisions, each of which must be perfect, whereas “satisficers” are those who make a decision or take action once their basic criteria are met, as Gretchen Rubin reports. Therefore, dining industry players must cater to both types by both offering straightforward, pragmatic information including detailed, appealing descriptions for perfectionists.

One psychological trick that business experts have been using for many years is ‘loss aversion’. The simple principle is that people don’t like to miss out on things, so presenting a risk of missing out on something will make that thing seem more appealing than it otherwise would. This explains the continued use of ‘limited time only’ offers that consistently succeed in encouraging consumers to make purchases at a higher rate.

Another longstanding choice motivator is personalisation. Whilst restaurants and bars must be careful not to overload their customers with options, offering flexibility and customisation is key. As Hubspot report:

“A German car company that allows consumers to completely customize their own cars found that presenting choices with fewer options first and slowly building up to more complex decisions - such as picking from 56 different exterior car colours - kept consumers more engaged.” Consumers like the idea of getting something unique.

In a restaurant or bar, this may include offering different portion sizes, sides or substitute ingredients. As Beth Johnson, executive director of special projects for personalized digital media company Catalina emphasises, "personalization and shopper choice are not just about savings, it's also about communicating to consumers in the manner in which they prefer."

The power of names


Choice is also deeply influenced by language. In her research into consumer choice psychology, Iyengar conduct a study to determine just how powerful language and naming could be. She presented participants with two bottles of nail polish and asked them to choose which shade they preferred. Half of the study participants chose a shade named “Adorable” when presented with label-free bottles. However, when the women knew the names of the polish, the majority chose the opposite shade, named “Ballet Slippers.” Here, as Hubspot suggest, something as simple as a name completely changed the consumers’ choice.

Clearly, then, choosing the perfect name for the items on your menu is integral. However, the power of language extends further, with certain ‘buzzwords’ such as ‘hand-reared’ increasing the appeal of dishes. As one Cornell study proved, longer, more detailed descriptions sell almost 30 per cent more dishes than shorter versions, proving how easily the mind can be swayed by words.

Smart pricing

Of course, money is another easy way to impact customer choice. As Wired explains, many diners are easily moved by "extremeness aversion", causing them to ignore the most expensive item - and the least expensive item – on a menu. Therefore, restauranteurs often feature the most expensive item near the top of the menu, causing everything below it to seem like a particularly good deal. As the eye is usually drawn to the upper right part of a sheet of paper, this is the prime position for these pricey, specialist items. It is also wise to include half portions or deals, which will make consumers feel as though they are saving money, therefore encouraging them to feel justified in ordering more items than they usually would.

As Fooddive explain, multiplatform promotions are another popular way of encouraging consumer choice in certain directions. They say: “By employing a multi-tiered approach to product promotions, manufacturers can better personalize offers to suit the varying needs of individual consumers across demographics.

“For example, a manufacturer may offer multi-tiered coupons structured as $1 off three cans of soup, $2 off five cans of soup, or $3 off six cans of soup. For some consumers, getting $1 off three cans of soup is enough to encourage a purchase. Others will prefer getting the most bang for their buck and buy more items for the deeper discount.”

This not only makes consumers feel as though they are receiving a fair deal – thereby building trust and brand affinity – but also increases ROI over a long period.

Tapping into relationships

Image credit:  Rawpixel  (Shutterstock)

Image credit: Rawpixel (Shutterstock)

However, it’s not all about words and numbers. In a study conducted by the Journal of Consumer Psychology, it was revealed that people feel “closer to and more trusting of those who consume as they do.” This is great news for restaurants and bars that cater to couples going on dates, because it proves that people often order the same items to show affinity. As a Munchies article reports, this research shows that food choices are “especially beneficial for new relationships where people have limited information about the other person and are forming first impressions,” so sharing menus and couples deals are a sure-fire way to engage consumers and motivate choice.

Choice can also be influenced by relationships in terms of emotional resonance. Whilst sharing platters can create a sense of belonging, harking back to Glasser’s assertion that belonging is a key motivator for choice, there are many other ways of increasing the emotional associations of food. Invoking nostalgia through connecting dishes to certain time periods or menus can also make them more appealing choices, as customers like to experience something comforting that reminds them of their own life.

New tactics

Image credit:  Dave Catchpole  (Visualhunt)

Image credit: Dave Catchpole (Visualhunt)

The overall tactics suggested by industry experts for drinking and dining businesses are:

-         Cut choices to avoid overwhelming consumers

-         Make things concrete and be honest

-         Categorise choices to make items more easy to find

-         Condition for complexity and customisation.

These approaches will remain essential for the foreseeable future. However, methods of influencing consumer choice are always growing. As Time discusses, “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.” Smartphones and web technology should be utilised alongside media to motivate choice. The Hustle claims that “an attractive picture alongside any food tends to increase sales of that item by as much as 30%.” Therefore, not only should printed menus feature images, but so should smartphone and web menus. This will not only allow you to push certain products, but will encourage more visitors to your establishment in the first place.

Even elements of the dining experience that were once considered an accessory to the eating and drinking itself are now integral parts of customer influence. According to Psychology Today, the music played in venues, for example, performs several key functions: “to accompany and enhance the food; to create ambiance and atmosphere; to influence menu choices; and, by making people eat faster, to increase table turnover.”

The psychology of listening to music interacts with the dining experience in fascinating ways, which can be utilised by businesses. According to research:

“a restaurant that places profit above dining experience often plays loud music with a fast tempo that subconsciously puts diners under pressure to eat more quickly, even if that means that they are less able to enjoy their meal. But caveat emptor: such music also suppresses appetite, leading to less food and, in particular, less drink being consumed. Appetite is, in part, a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. Loud, fast music activates the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight-or-flight' response), which opposes the parasympathetic system and thereby diminishes appetite.”

Therefore, if you want customers to relax and truly relish the dining experience, mellow, soft music is the best choice. Music can even influence consumers’ perception of taste, with high notes being associated with sweet flavours and low notes associated with bitter tastes. All of this means that the soundscape of your venue is an essential part of the sense of taste itself.

Choice: it’s a complex psychological process, but not one to be intimidated by. With a little knowledge, the various elements that influence your customers’ dining and drinking decisions can be harnessed to both improve their experience and improve your business performance.