Whenever you go out for dinner or drinks, just know this:
your brain is being hacked.
Like with most businesses, the goal is to
make money, so it kinda makes sense that restaurants
and bars would do whatever they can to get
you to spend more of it.
But there are a lot more ways they can manipulate
you than you might realize.
From the adjectives on the menu to the size
of the plates, establishments can use all
kinds of psychological tricks to influence
Some of them are so hardwired that even after
watching this video, you still might be fooled.
But at least if you know what’s happening,
there’s a chance you can take back control.
The mind-hacking begins with the menu.
For example: Have you ever noticed that a
lot of restaurants list prices as plain numbers?
There’ll just be a “15” next to the
crab cakes, with no dollar sign or any other
indication that it’s a price.
That’s not an aesthetic choice.
Studies have shown that people spend more
when menus don’t have dollar signs, probably
because it keeps you from thinking about how
much money your order will cost.
There’s also a lot of thought that goes
into how the items are listed.
The options aren’t “hamburger” or “baked
fish” — instead, they’re described as
“Joe’s meaty burger” or “succulent
That’s because researchers have found that
adding colorful descriptors can increase sales
by up to 27%.
So you might want to translate the choices
in your head before you decide what to order.
Restaurants and bars can also influence both
how much you spend and how much you consume
by using glasses and dishes with certain shapes
One thing they can do is vary the size of
their dishes to take advantage of what’s
known as the Delboeuf illusion, where two
identical circles look different based on
the size of circles around them.
Not to be confused with the Labeouf illusion,
where two identical circles are actually props
in a short experimental film.
In the Delboeuf illusion, if one of the circles
is surrounded by a third circle that’s just
a little bigger, the inside circle will look
larger than its twin.
But if the outside circle is much bigger,
the inside circle will look smaller.
Since food on a plate is essentially a circle
of stuff surrounded by the circle of the plate’s
edge, this illusion can make the same portion
look bigger depending on the size
of the plate.
A 2012 study in the Journal of Consumer Research
confirmed this by showing that people overestimate
portions when they’re using large plates,
serving themselves more than they really wanted.
With small plates, they serve themselves less.
The Delboeuf illusion is so convincing that
studies have found you’ll actually feel
more full when you eat a meal from a smaller
That’s why all-you-can-eat buffets tend
to keep their plateware small — so you think
you’re eating more when you really aren’t.
Meanwhile, restaurants where you pay based
on what you order tend to serve their entrees
on large platters, hoping to convince you
that you still have room for dessert.
There’s also a lot they can do with glassware.
Research has shown that people are willing
to pay much more for drinks if you match their
expectations when it comes to the shape of
Because of cultural influences, we think some
drinks simply belong in certain glasses—like
a rounder, larger glass for red wines than
And when there’s a mismatch, that creates
cognitive dissonance—the psychological stress
we feel when a situation leads to conflicts
between our attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors.
You might not think of drinking hot chocolate
from a water glass as something that would
cause psychological anguish, but it does!
Which means we find the overall experience
less pleasant, and we don’t want to pay
as much for it.
Certain shapes can also get you to drink faster.
In a study published in PLoS ONE in 2012,
researchers found that we drink beer faster
from curved glasses than straight ones.
That’s probably because our brains tend
to judge how much liquid is left based on
how far up the glass it reaches, even if the
glass is much wider at the top.
So with a curved glass, it’s harder to pace
yourself, and by the time you think you’ve
finished half your beer, you’re actually
much more than halfway through.
You might end up finishing the beer much faster
than you wanted … and the faster you drink,
the faster you need a refill.
We also tend to think tall, skinny glasses
contain more than short, fat ones, even when
Studies have found that we pour more into
short, fat glasses, and we drink more from
them—up to 88% more.
That might come from what’s known as the
horizontal-vertical illusion, where vertical
lines seem longer than horizontal ones.
Psychologists aren’t totally sure why the
illusion works, but it might be because our
visual field is wider than it is tall.
So, like, a line of the same length takes up a greater
percentage of what we see vertically than
it does horizontally, which makes us think
Restaurants can even influence the way your
food or drink tastes based on how they serve
it to you.
One tactic uses what’s known as shape symbolism,
where we associate roundness with sweetness
and angles with bitterness.
Like with the horizontal-vertical illusion,
we’re not sure why this is, but it’s possible
that we conflate bitterness and physical sharpness
because they can both be signs of danger.
Whatever the reason, shape symbolism makes
us perceive chocolate cut into rounds as sweeter
than the exact same bar in chunks, or beer
from a curved glass as fruitier.
And that’s just the beginning.
A lot of flavor manipulation comes from a
phenomenon called sensation transference,
where we transfer the properties of the plateware
or utensil to the food we eat from it.
So for example, if you want to make soda taste
cooler and more refreshing, you can put it
in a cool-colored container—a tip Pepsi
took to heart.
Even the heft of your cutlery can make a difference.
Since we automatically associate weight with
quality, we’ll think yogurt tastes better
when we’re eating it with a silver spoon
than when we eat it with a plastic one.
And of course, as Iron Chef taught me, plating
In one study, researchers presented 60 people
with a salad of the exact same ingredients
tossed, neatly sorted, or arranged to look
like a famous Kandinsky painting.
Before they even tried it, participants said
they knew they’d like the artistic salad
more, and ultimately, they rated it 29% tastier
than the other salads.
So if you’re trying to reduce how much you
eat and drink — or how much you spend — you
might want to keep an eye out for some of
these tricks the next time you go out to eat
or meet up at the bar with your friends.
Because practically everything about the place
is trying to sell you something.
Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
If you’re interested in learning about more
ways businesses can use psychology to manipulate
people, you can check out our video about
the tactics advertisers use to persuade you.