Fry-Ups and Psychology

My day started as every day should start… with a full English breakfast shared with a good friend. Our conversation eventually turned to what we did with our toast. My friend used it to dunk in the yolk of her fried eggs, while I used it to mop up my plate once I’d finished.

My friend, who also works as a note taker at Plymouth University and who attends a lot of Psychology lectures, said she thought that these little quirks of people’s eating habits would make an interesting psychological study.

I don’t know much about the psychology of people’s eating. But the conversation reminded me of some interesting experiments in the choices people make when ordering from a restaurant; experiments undertaken by Dan Ariely and recounted in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions.

Predictably Irrational

In a series of experiments, Dan and Jonathan Levav investigated how being in a group affects which beers, wines or meals people order in a bar/restaurant setting. Different groups ordered their choices in two ways:

  1. the ‘public’ choice – they would go round in a circle and each would say aloud to the waiter what they wanted, which is how people often order.
  2. the ‘private’ choice – they would write their order on a sheet of paper and hand it to the waiter.

The people were then asked how much they enjoyed their choice afterwards.

The aim was to see how being in a group affected people’s decisions.  Are we influenced by others’ decisions?

What they found was that when people ordered ‘publicly’, a greater variety of meals or drinks were chosen than when ordered ‘privately’.

The explanation is that when ordering food ‘publicly’ in a group, people don’t merely choose food which they’d most enjoy, but also to signal to others that they are ‘unique’ and ‘individual’. If someone had already chosen the item they would most enjoy, then they would deliberately choose something else, just to be different.

However, when people could order anonymously, this signalling effect wasn’t so prominent. People stuck to their preferred choices.

It was also found that the people who chose ‘publicly’ didn’t enjoy their food as much – which isn’t surprising when they didn’t go for their first choice. Apart from the person who ordered first, that is – who essentially was able to make a private decision and not worry about what others were choosing.

By the way, me and my friend both chose exactly the same meal. But then, if we’re the sort of weirdos who talk about psychological experiments over breakfast, do you expect us to behave like most people?

P.S. These experiments were conducted largely with Americans – who come from a Western, more individualistic culture. When the experiment was conducted in Hong Kong – there was also a difference between ‘public’ and ‘private’ choices. Only there was less variety in the ‘public’ choices – people chose what others were having even if it wasn’t their preference. This is probably because in Oriental cultures there is stronger pressure to conform.


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