All That Menu Psychology Stuff Is Bull

For years, restaurant owners have hired specialists to design menus that exploit "menu psychology," the little mechanisms that entice customers to order more. But as the Huffington Post reported recently, at least one oft-repeated "fact" about the way diners read menus is nonsense.

Menu psychologists have long argued that customers read menus in a nonlinear way, eyes flitting around the page but focusing mainly on the upper-right quadrant, a place called the "sweet spot." Not true, says Sybil Yang, an assistant professor of hospitality at San Francisco State University, who hooked up test subjects to infrared retinal eye scanners before handing them menus. And how did they read them? Top to bottom and left to right, just like a book. The "sweet spot"? Myth.

In fact, a lot of the so-called accepted wisdom about menu psychology just isn't supported by research.

Myth: Red is appetizing, purple is not.

The color red supposedly increases your heartbeat as well as your appetite. Orange and yellow are thought to be similarly "yummy." Blue is controversial; some say it stimulates the appetite, others say it doesn't, though almost everybody agrees that gray and purple are unappetizing. But nobody's ever proven any of that to be true. There is some evidence that brown liquids are rated slightly less refreshing than other colors, and that eating food of any one color gets old after a while. In fact, one recent study found that test subjects ate less from red plates than from blue ones. So much for the assumption that red makes you ravenous.

Myth: Pictures of food are tacky.

We're not running a restaurant here at CHOW.com, but we have found that recipes without pictures don't generate much interest. Seeing an image of a food you like makes you want it, and can even override hunger signals. So why wouldn't every restaurant put luscious food photos on the menu? It's not classy, say menu psychologists, with no evidence whatsoever. In fact, there's far more evidence to suggest that the volume and type of background music a restaurant plays has a much greater influence on what customers spend.

Myth: Being upfront about prices scares diners.

Here's a real sacred cow. "In the world of menu engineering and pricing, a dollar sign is pretty much the worst thing you can put on a menu, particularly at a high-end restaurant," asserted the New York Times in 2009. Some menus leave off prices altogether, particularly on specials, or finesse the pricing format, hoping to strike magic. But there's simply no evidence that hiding prices changes diner behavior, according to a Cornell study by Sybil Yang. The only thing pretty much everybody agrees about is just how much diners hate having to ask how much something costs.

Image source: Flickr member stevendepolo under Creative Commons

Former CHOW contributor Joyce Slaton is an editor and writer in San Francisco. She takes her tea with sugar and milk and will sew you an apron if you ask nicely. Follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.