How a shift in menu position increases an item’s popularity by over 50%

Intervention · Business

Abstract

Throughout the world, obesity has tripled between 1975 and 2021.1 According to the World Health Organization (WHO), most of the world’s population live in countries where mortality rates from obesity are higher than of those who are dangerously underweight.1 A team of researchers sought to uncover whether nudges can tackle this problem. Does the placement of food items on a menu influence what food people order? Their results from 2 studies, geared toward restaurants and menu consultants, showed a 55% and 56% increase in popularity, “when an item was moved from the exact middle to the extreme end.”2

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Rating: 4/5 (Significant effects; easy implementation; could significantly improve health outcomes; doesn’t acknowledge other factors contributing to obesity)

How location on a menu impacts food choices
Condition
Results
Extreme Location on a Menu 
(Beginning or End of a List)
Popularity increased by 56% 
Middle of a List Popularity increased by about 16%

Key Concepts

Choice architecture: The variety of ways in which information can be presented to a consumer, with the main goal being to influence the decision-making process.

Nudge: Any component of choice architecture that can predictably change behavior; Nudges must be easy and cheap to avoid and do not include laws or instructions.

Serial position effect: This effect describes the relative ease of remembering items at the beginning and end of a list, but the difficulty in remembering the middle items.

The Problem

In 2016, an estimated 1.9 billion adults globally were diagnosed as being overweight, 650 million of those being obese.1 Given that overweight and obesity are generally caused by a caloric surplus and a decrease in physical activity, can nudges be used to combat this?

The importance of sequential choices

Previous studies have investigated how decision-making is affected by the order in which we encounter things. However, these stimuli tend to be presented sequentially and their dependent variable generally isn’t “choice”. Another study found that when items are not identical, people tend to prefer options that are in the middle rather than at the edges.

Can we change outcomes via menu position?

Restaurant trade publications had been advocating for placing items that one wants to sell at the beginning and end of the menus. However at the time of this paper’s publishing in 2011, there had been no research to back up these claims. The investigative team sought to unearth whether or not order really matters on a menu and how to leverage that into a nudge that could reduce obesity. 

Design

In a controlled setting

The first study involved 240 students, ages 19-32, from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. The researchers created four versions of a menu from an Israeli pizza chain; each differed in the order of items presented within a category. Prices were not shown. 

There were 4 categories: Appetizers (4), Entrées (10), Soft Drinks (6), and Desserts (8), for a total of 28 items. The menu versions are as follows:

  1. Baseline – Created with an arbitrary design
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Each participant was asked to choose a single food item from each category with the possibility of winning a real meal at the pizzeria; the meal would consist of the participant’s exact menu choices.

In the real world

Given that Study 1 was conducted under a controlled setting, the research team decided to create a second study that would evaluate how people choose items under real-world circumstances. Study 2 occurred in a Tel Aviv cafe with real customers, and unlike Study 1, the menus showed prices. The cafe collaborated with the investigators to record customer orders and alter the menus according to the study plan.

Their menu consisted of 60 items, but for simplicity, only three categories were manipulated: Coffee with alcohol (4 items), Soft drinks (6 items), and Desserts (10 items). Staff at the cafe discretely recorded all orders during the period of the study. Unlike Study 1, only the Baseline and Inside-Out versions were created; the former represented the standard menu and the latter only included changes in positions from the 3 aforementioned target categories. Each form was presented for 15 days, alternating between the two.

The EAST framework

Throughout these investigations, the EAST Framework informed the researchers’ decisions. The Behavioral Insights Team created this framework in 2012 as a means to improve public policy via nudging and social engineering, among other psychological and economic principles. EAST stands for the four pillars of the framework, which recommends that a policy be Easy to implement, Attractive to the target group, Social (it must utilize our desire for approval from others), and Timely (a policy should be presented when people are most receptive to it). Creating an intervention in the form of a menu allowed the interventions to include all of the EAST components.

Results and Application

Study 1: Popularity of Items at Beginning and End of Menus Increased by 56%

Within the categories, the measured advantage of an item being placed at an extreme averaged at 56%. All but a minority of items benefitted from being placed at the beginning or end of its category list, no matter its popularity. In fact, even the options that were less popular had an advantage of 54% when placed at an extreme end. 2

Study 2: Popularity of Items at Beginning and End of Menus Increased by 55%

Unlike Study 1, only a few items showed an advantage of being at an extreme position. This advantage at the category level equates to a mean of 55%. Only the differences found in the Soft Drinks category were deemed significant. Compared to Study 1, items had a larger gain in popularity when moved from the exact middle to an extreme end (55%), compared to when it moved from the near middle to the near-end (51%). Researchers conclude by emphasizing that these findings are for situations when items are presented simultaneously, and when position refers to a spatial position rather than a temporal one. Findings from studies on other theories, such as the serial position effect, cannot be compared to this one because for those, the position is temporal and the dependent variables are memory rather than choice.

Industry
Application
Financial Services Employers could place the most financially savvy savings choices at the beginning and end of a list of options, i.e. in choosing retirement plans.
Climate & Energy Energy companies that want to increase renewable energy use could list these options at the extreme ends of a list and traditional energy options (i.e. natural gas) in the middle.
Retail & Consumer When displaying clothing online, retailers could place the most environmentally-friendly clothes at the beginning and end of each page (i.e. locally made clothing or clothing made from sustainable materials).

Ethics

  • Individuals were free to choose what to order and whether they wanted to leave the study
  • Obesity and overweight are timely and dire problems, and studies like this could improve the health of many
  • The authors failed to acknowledge additional factors for overweight and obesity, such as health complications or physical disability
Dimension
Verdict
Comments
Welfare

Does the intervention demonstrably improve the lives of those affected by it?
Positive
The benefits of reducing rates of obesity and overweight impact people at the individual and societal levels.
Does the intervention respect the privacy (including the privacy of identity) of those it affects?
Positive
No personal information was divulged
Does the intervention have a plan to monitor the safety, effectiveness, and validity of the intervention?
Positive
The safety of participants was never threatened. Researchers noted that the validity of the findings would need to be reinforced via future studies.
Autonomy

Does the intervention abide by a reasonable degree of consent?
Positive
Participants were free to leave at any time.
Does the intervention respect the ability of those it affects to make their own decisions?
Positive
Consumers were able to make their own decisions, free from pressure or bias.
Does the intervention increase the number of choices available to those it affects?
Not applicable
The intervention doesn’t increase the number of choices available.
Equity

Does the intervention acknowledge the perspectives, interests, and preferences of everyone it affects, including traditionally marginalized groups?
Room for improvement
It does not acknowledge additional sources of obesity or overweight, such as thyroid issues or food addiction, issues that would affect one’s food choices.
Are the participants diverse?
Insufficient information
Participants in Study 1 were mostly young individuals, but no demographic information was given for Study 2.
Does the intervention help ensure a just, equitable distribution of welfare?
Positive
Healthier eating habits would theoretically reduce rates of obesity, thus diminishing healthcare costs and benefitting society.

Related TDL Content

How Loss Aversion Affects Our Perceptions of Weight – If interventions like the one described in this study are implemented, how would people feel about losing weight? Research suggests that we react to weight as we would with money: we may have a stronger reaction to weight gain than weight loss. Read more to discover a thoughtful reflection on how loss aversion can play out in unexpected ways.

Increasing The Pull Of The Future Self – It was mentioned how the study’s authors overlook a multitude of factors that influence overweight and obesity. One such factor is when people routinely discount future outcomes; this article discusses studies that have addressed the issue and ways to overcome it.

Can Nudge Theory Be Applied To Public Health? – Do nudges like food order really affect change in the real world? Professor Mike Kelly, an Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s of Public Health, says that “we need more research, especially in terms of physical activity.” Click the link to read more and watch his video interview.

Sources

  1. World Health Organization. (2021, June 9). Obesity and overweight. World Health Organization. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight. 
  2. Dayan, Eran & Bar-Hillel, Maya. (2011). Nudge to nobesity II: Menu positions influence food orders. Judgment and Decision Making. 6. 333-342.
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