Grab a menu the next time you are at a restaurant, and chances are the "special" will catch your eye. Restaurants know it will sell many more and thatâ€™s why they list their most profitable item there.
William Poundstone, author of â€śPriceless: The Myth Of Fair Value,â€ť a book on how businesses exploit their customers, has examined the psychology behind â€śmenu engineering.â€ť Thatâ€™s the secret way restaurants try to urge us to pick the most expensive dishes they sell, the Daily Mail notes.
And because we're oblivious to what theyâ€™re doing it, theyâ€™re almost always successful.
â€śPeople rarely go into restaurants knowing exactly what they want to order or how much they want to spend,â€ť explains Poundstone. â€śAnd we can be influenced by all sorts of things that weâ€™re not aware of.â€ť
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You may think youâ€™re picking what you most want to eat from a restaurantâ€™s menu, but research says differently. Menu consultants exist to make you order the more expensive and most profitable dishes from a restaurantâ€™s menu through design tricks.
â€śMiddle class chain restaurants like Olive Garden, Hooters and TGI Fridayâ€™s are really on the cutting edge of menu science because they have standardized menus and look at whatâ€™s selling and whatâ€™s not,â€ť Poundstone told ABC News earlier this year. â€śAnd they do everything they can to increase their profits from it.â€ť
For example, a study by the Center For Hospitality Research at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, found that when dollar signs were left off a menu, sales went up by 8 percent.
â€śThe more space you devote to something on a menu, the more people pay attention to it,â€ť Poundstone explains. â€śSo if you have a pound sign and the number of pence, it takes up more space on the page â€” and more space in your mental attention. And obviously the restaurant does not want you to choose your food on the basis of price.â€ť
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Thatâ€™s also why menus often have items and their prices centered on the page, instead of listing them in a straight column on the right-hand side. This makes it harder to look over the menu and compare.
Some restaurants â€śanchorâ€ť prices with a highly expensive dish prominently on the menu, in order to make other dishes nearby appear relatively cheap in comparison.
At Marco Pierre Whiteâ€™s Marco Grill in London, thereâ€™s a 35 ounce Tomahawk steak on sale for ÂŁ70 ($116.44). Restaurants do not expect to sell many of these expensive â€śanchorâ€ť items, says Poundstone. Instead, they are there to make the other dishes look like good value.
Research has also gone into where we look when we first open a menu. Itâ€™s estimated that we spend 109 seconds on average reading a menu.
Studies have shown that when weâ€™re given a list we remember best the item at the very start, and the one at the end â€” itâ€™s the way our memory works.
We will also turn our eyes first to the top right-hand corner of a page in front of us, where the most profitable items are usually placed.
The menu might also use other ways of getting our attention: an item in a different color; a different typeface; and even pictures of food.
â€śThe food thatâ€™s illustrated gets ordered more than ones that donâ€™t, so the food they have pictures of are ones they get more profit on,â€ť Poundstone told ABC.
Professor Charles Spence, an Oxford University psychologist, is the co-author of â€śThe Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science Of Food And Dining,â€ť and alerts to the techniques in play.
â€śI was in the burger restaurant Byron the other day,â€ť he says. â€śThe menu is all in black and white, except for one item, which is highlighted in bright red. And itâ€™s their most expensive item.â€ť
Professor Spence says that people are also likely to spend more if menus â€” and especially wine lists â€” are heavy to handle. Even the words that menus use can persuade us to pull out our wallets.