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The Psychology Behind Your Morning Coffee Choice
Hey everyone, welcome back.
When I think about how the medium impacts the message, one of the ways that quickly comes to mind is the menus found in stores. We usually feel like we are in control of what we purchase. We walk into a store, we look for the products we want, either on a shelf or from a menu board, and then we move along and make our purchase. And in one sense, that’s true. I go into a coffee shop, look at the menu, and purchase. There’s typically more going on than that, however.
If we stop and consider the menu or story layout even as a medium, what’s the message it tells us? Let’s think about a typical menu setup: Small or Large. When presented with two options, we’ve made it a binary decision, and the outcome is hard to predict. In The Myth of Experience, the authors Emre Soyer and Robin Hogarth give the example of getting a toddler to wear a coat (an experience I’ve not quite gotten to yet but is coming for me). In their telling, when we’re just trying to get a child to wear a coat, we’ve given them a binary option: coat or no coat. The authors then suggest we use a little “option design” and instead provide them with a choice between two coats.1 Now, the decision is between the two coats, not between coat or no coat. True, sometimes this might not work, but the experience is now more optimized so that most of the time, you are just getting the child to choose between the two coats.
Taking this back into the store and menu world, we frequently encounter decoy options or options that are not meant to be chosen but are there to “anchor” or give context to another option.
Let’s consider the Starbucks menu. In his 2018 analysis, Kent Hendricks shares how the center stage effect, the compromise effect, and the attraction effect work together to push us to the menu's literal center, then to the middle or large option.
First is the center stage effect, about which Hendricks writes:
Whichever iteration of Starbucks’ menu you look at, you will focus on the middle before the edges. You look at middle rows before the top and bottom rows. And you look at middle prices before you look at cheaper or more expensive options.2
From there, Hendricks moves on to the compromise effect:
Until the mid-1990s, Starbucks offered three drink options: Short, Tall, and Grande. Most people avoided the extremes–Short and Grande–and ordered Tall drinks.
But when Starbucks dropped the Short size from the menu and added the Venti size, the Grande became the middle—and most frequently selected—option.3
And then he moves on to the attraction effect:
To simplify what’s happening: the distance between the Tall and the Grande is much greater than the distance between the Grande and the Venti. This effectively excludes the Tall from your choice set.4
You can check out his complete analysis of background psychology and a few additional points he makes. Still, for our purposes, the point is that while we look at a menu and think we are the only participants in deciding which drink to order, we forget a crucial rule of all media: as we engage with the media of the menu, it’s shaping us back. In this case, the work the Starbucks menu is doing on us is to frame our choices so that we are guided to the optimum decision. Put another way, Soyer and Hogarth note:
As consumers, we have a much easier time making up our minds under [companies] well-created option designs. The crucial issue, however, is that they get to determine our anchors and adjustments, in many cases by employing fine-tuned decoys.5
As you know, I like to end my essays here with a prompt for further thinking. I like how Hendricks ends his post, so I’ll let his challenge carry us out today:
Next time you’re in line at Starbucks, it’s worth pondering:
Am I a rational being?
Does free will exist?
Do I produce my choices, or do my choices produce me?
Enjoy your drink.6