Psychology Applied to Life

December 23, 2009

Menu Psychology: An Ethical Question?

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an interesting piece on the psychology of menu creation. It’s something that perhaps only large chains are giving serious thought to – sending their menus and executives off to “menu boot camp” and learning about the four types of diners – but perhaps none of them really should. Obviously the goal of a business is to make money. To do that requires satisfying customers and success does seem to be measured in profit margins. But, the use of psychology in creating menus here seems to focus on increasing two very bad behaviors.

First, the menus are revised to encourage individuals to eat more… the idea that we should actually “mindlessly eat” (as is suggested by the title of Brian Wansink’s book) is a very VERY scary one given that obesity is a major health crisis in America. Programs such as Weight Watchers actually ask you to focus on what you eat and how much you are consuming – because then you actually do consume less. The idea is that we won’t naturally keep eating after we’re full, to the point that we’ll feel sick. But, the presentation of so much appetizing food on a menu can cause us to order more than we should (as our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, as the popular phrase goes) and then, when the food arrives, we feel some sense of obligation to eat it all (yet another piece of wisdom I picked up from my years on Weight Watchers).

The feeling that we ordered it and it’s ours, and we have to pay for it so we should eat it is intricately tied to the next bad behavior encouraged by these restaurants. Concerned about the economy and reduced spending of Americans – a record number of whom have been unemployed this past year and many more who consciously feel the pinch – restaurant managers and executives are investigating ways to present prices to maximize customer spending. This includes presenting prices near the end of the menu and using “friendly” numbers without dollar signs (apparently the use of the period to indicate cents is left to your discretion as it seems to have little effect on customer spending).

Ultimately, the psychological research behind may be sound (I have NOT read too much beyond this – it seems to use the same research methods I am familiar with and use, but is published by and conducted by those in hospitality and tourism fields, so let’s assume here that it is methodologically sound, for the sake of argument), but should it be used this way? It seems to be an ethical question with no easy answers. After all, though these restaurants may be subtly fooling customers into bad habits, the overspending of these customers leads to financial comfort and relief for the business owners themselves and who really gets to determine who should profit and who should face the brunt of the economic crisis?

[Link to the original New York Times article – “Using Menu Psychology to Entice Diners” by Sarah Kershaw, December 22, 2009, here.]

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