Restaurant Menu Psychology: 5 Principles of Guest Behavior

By Allison Tetreault, Foodable Industry Expert

Redesigning your menu? If you already know your stars, dogs, puzzles, and workhorses from your menu engineering research, you know which items to feature and which to downplay.

But where do you start? Well, with guest psychology.

With restaurant guest psychology, you can make various choices about your menu based on known psychological principles. Studies dating back to the 1800s have helped marketers cater their content to their audience; why can’t you do the same with your menu?

From pricing to design to descriptions, let’s focus on how certain known psychological principles can influence how you design and price your menu to lead customers toward your most profitable dishes. Let’s focus on restaurant menu psychology.

5 Ways to Influence Menu Decisions

1. Paradox of Choice

Choices, choices, choices. When looking at your menu, guests have loads of choices. However, they also have a limited amount of space in their short-term memory. The more menu items crowded in there, the more anxiety we feel to choose, and choose right. The cheapest option? The most delectable option? Nah, I’ll just stick with my usual.

In order to battle this paradox of choice, menus “cluster” similar pieces of information together: there’s a category for pizzas, a category for appetizers, a category for pastas, and so on. This helps guests remember the highlights of each list.

However, what’s the magic number for amount of menu items in a category so guests won’t become so overwhelmed? According to George A. Miller, a founder of cognitive psychology, most guests may only remember seven pieces of information (plus or minus two) at a given time.

So make it easier for guests to scan your menu by offering up to seven options per food category. Otherwise, they may become confused and choose their default option instead of perusing the menu for something a bit different (or a bit more expensive). You don’t want customers to leave with a bad taste in their mouths — with the idea that they could have made a better choice.

2. Decoy Effect

Want to entice customers to buy your more profitable dish? You may want to try the decoy effect in your pricing models. The decoy effect is a psychological occurrence that means guests are more likely to change their preference between two options when a third, less appealing option is introduced to show the “value” of the most expensive option. Check out this example:

  • Fries: $5

  • Hamburger: $10

  • Hamburger & Fries: $10

What? You can get the hamburger and fries for the same price? Why would you offer that; wouldn’t you be losing money?

Well, no. According to Dan Ariely, the decoy effect really works. He ran a study on 100 MIT students, asking them which package they would buy — the combo deal, the more expensive deal, or the less expensive deal. When all three options were there, they chose the combo deal. But when he removed the “useless” option (the hamburger for $10), they preferred the cheapest option. The middle option gave them a frame of reference of just how good the combo deal was, and enticed them to pay more.

You can see this quite vividly at movie theaters selling popcorn. In an example pulled from a Fat Media article, there is a large disparity between the prices of the small and the large cartons, but the large carton will only be slightly more expensive than the medium one. In this scenario, the medium carton is the decoy, designed to make the large, most expensive carton of popcorn appear more attractive to customers.

If you're looking to increase sales of a particular menu item, you might want to show its pricing against other items. It could help increase the conversion rate of the option you'd ultimately want people to take, especially for those guests who are price-sensitive.

3. Social Proof

Everyone likes pizza. It’s a fact.

Well, actually, no, it’s not, but here’s an example of social proof.

Social proof is the theory that people will adopt the beliefs or actions of a group of people they like or trust. It’s the “me too” effect.

This is an easy win on your menu. As well as including pictures of your food, why not also include quotes from customers or family members? Show why people love the item. Wahlburgers does this at their restaurant: mom’s favorite, dad’s favorite, Mark’s favorite, and more, are explicitly called out on the menu. Guests may think, Hey, if Mark Wahlberg likes it, maybe I will too!

You may also want to encourage customers to review your restaurant on Yelp; social proof is very helpful there, with honest reviews from your customers.

4. Semantic Salience

Semantic salience. Tongue-twister, no? Let’s break it down.

Semantics refers to the relationship between signs and symbols and their meaning(s); this is pretty much the same way the word semantics works in regards to written/verbal language.

Salience is the relative conspicuousness of something in a given situation. So when we’re talking about semantic salience, we’re referring to how noticeable (and potentially important) a symbol’s meaning is to a specific situation or decision-making process.

Let’s apply this idea to the topic at hand: menu design. And, specifically, pricing. Not menu pricing, like the decoy effect above, but price presentation. How do symbols affect your menu price presentation? Here are a few ways:

  • $14.00
  • $14
  • 14.00

  • 14

  • fourteen dollars

The dollar sign makes the price more conspicuous, adding salience. While all of these prices are indisputably equal amounts, they differ in saliency. A dollar sign tends to be associated with having to pay, and having to pay tends to be associated with losing money (obviously), which is never someone’s first option. So why make it all about the dollar sign? Prime them for something else — read on.

5. Priming and the “Pain” of Paying

Priming is “the act of making something ready.” In psychological terms, it’s being exposed to a stimulus that influences a response to a later stimulus.

Let’s go back to our dollar sign. Its repetition increases its saliency and its connotation for having to pay can subconsciously prime people for that negative feeling when seeing it on our menu. You don’t want guests to have negative feelings at all when checking out your menu, never mind when they’re just about to choose an item.

In order to strike the balance between making a profit and not scaring customers away, simply get rid of the dollar signs or other currency symbols. Any reference to currency reminds diners of the “pain” associated with spending money, and may lead them to order solely based on price rather than choosing menu items based on ingredients, quality, or what sounds most appealing.

Don’t believe it? Here’s some proof: a study by The Center for Hospitality Research showed that people spend significantly more money at restaurants whose menus do not include dollar signs or the word “dollar(s)” with the prices.

Not only should you get rid of dollar signs, you can also prime guests for profitable interactions by making it harder for them to line up prices and compare them. Rather, you can set menu items apart with descriptive menu labels.

According to Dr. Brian Wansink in this field experiment, descriptive menu labels (such as “succulent Italian seafood filet” vs. “seafood filet”) resulted in customers feeling more satisfied with their meal. In turn, this allowed for more favorable comments — assuming that the item lives up to expectations (i.e., is not significantly worse than expected). The descriptive labels increased sales by 27 percent.

How Do You Incorporate Psychology in Menu Design?

Now, let’s turn the microphone to you. What are your prized menu design secrets? What have you found works in your restaurant to lead guests toward your most profitable dishes?

According to research from Toast, Inc, inventory management, which includes menu engineering, is the No. 1 feature restaurateurs are asking for in 2016. What features in your technology would you want to design your menu better?

Share in the comments below!