David R. Henderson  

A Cheap Economist Buys Lunch

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Cosmopolitans and False Consci... Remorse...

Just Say No

"These Are The Mind Tricks Restaurants Use To Make You Spend More Money." So reads the title of a recent article warning people about the various psychological tricks restaurants use to cause you to spend more.

There's a lot of good material in the article but it starts out by way overstating. Here are the opening two paragraphs:

When you make decisions at a restaurant, you're exercising your own free will: True or false?

Sorry to take away your agency, but the answer is mostly false. The second you walk into a dining establishment, you're being slowly influenced to order the things the restaurant makes the most money selling. There are two ways it happens. One is at the corporate level, where chains design the whole experience to milk you of your money and keep you coming back. This is the realm of enticing photographs on menus, color theory (some say red makes you feel hungrier) or of things like McDonald's odd mix of inviting design (bright lights that entice you in) and annoying design (the same over-bright lights also make you eat up and get out, and those seats are uncomfortable for a reason).


Somehow, the author, Charlie Sorrel, thinks that when people try subtly to influence you, they are taking away your free will. I do not think that term means what he thinks it means. You still have free will; you simply need to resist certain influences.

I'll give an example from Mother's Day, 2015. My daughter was in town for Mother's Day and we--my wife, my daughter, another woman who's like a second daughter to us, and her 15-year-old daughter--went to lunch at one of our favorite restaurants.

One of my rules for saving money at restaurants is to never--well, hardly ever, as Gilbert and Sullivan said--buy booze with a meal. But because I knew the lunch was going to last a while with all the conversation, I broke with my pattern and decided to order a Margarita. When the waiter took the order, I told him that one thing I've noticed over the last few years is how bitter the Margaritas are. I asked him if he could make sure they add something to sweeten it. He said he would.

He must have thought that my request meant that I was a connoisseur of Margaritas because, as he walked away from the table, he turned back and said, "Is there any particular Tequila you would like in that drink?" To answer so he heard it at that distance would mean that people at the surrounding tables would hear. I didn't care. I answered in my booming voice "Yes, the cheapest you have."

The 15-year-old's eyes widened. I think she hadn't heard someone so proudly declare that he's cheap. So I turned to her and said, "Gabby, this is what lunch is like with an economist." She laughed.

The drink turned out to have just the right amount of sweetness.


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CATEGORIES: Business Economics




COMMENTS (5 to date)

Raised a tightwad and proudly a penny pincher, I say "just water" when asked what I want to drink. The drink (even if non alcoholic) can amount to 30% of the tab, but rarely contributes to my enjoyment of the solid parts of a meal.

But as my brain rots and I remind myself to try to be liberal, sometimes lately I purposely spend money stupidly. I want the coffee shops I frequent to survive, so I willingly find ways to pass more cash to the owners who may need more encouragement than the price of a cup of coffee. Actually, I want the coffee shops to do so well that they become crowded with Austrian economists.

Lucio Martelli writes:

You are writing as if willpower (here used to mean "the capacity to say no") exists in unlimited supply in every human beings all the time.

It doesn't, and there is a ton of research about it in the psychological literature.

Every time you have to dodge what you correctly define as influences you are expending a limited and valuable resource.

Many corporate acts are a direct assault on your limited willpower.

Whether that is something to regulate or not, is another matter, but it isn't useful to the debate to just dismiss this matter as "just say no".

Saying no is COSTLY, imposing the need to say no frequently is a negative externality.

Dan the man writes:

I've noticed a trend where, when you ask for water, the waiter will reply with some variation of, "Bottled or tap?" I tell them I prefer hose water but anything that's free is fine. As I grew up under the influence of my depression era grandfather, their transparent public shaming tactics don't work with me. Illegitimi non carborundum!

Hazel Meade writes:

@Lucio Martelli,

Maybe some people have more willpower (as in a greater supply of willpower) than others.

Personally, I have never actually felt compelled to purchase something I don't want or need. Perhaps that's just my mind telling me that I actually needed/wanted that thing even though I didn't, but that is my perception.

I'm always somewhat mystified when other people portray delicious looking food in advertsing as a "mind trick", or other psychological manipulation. I buy that for popcorn and fried chicken smells (if I smell popcorn in a theater it can be hard to resist the temptation to buy some even if I know I will stop wanting it after eating 1/4 of the bag), but for images, meh, doesn't affect me that much. Perhaps some people are just more strongly visually influenced or have a larger willpower reservoir than others, and I (and David Henderson) are on the high-willpower-reservoir end of the spectrum.

This could be both relevant to the research and have policy implications. Maybe the low-willpower-reservoir people are simply assuming that everyone else has a similarly small willpower reservoir, when that isn't actually the case.

Charles Lindsey writes:

@Lucio Martelli, the prevailing belief that willpower comes in finite quantities and can be depleted is being challenged. In David's example, then, it appears that succumbing to a fancy margarita might have been costly, but not refusing it.

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