Mind Over Meal: How The Anchoring Effect Controls Your Dining Decisions

Every morning, millions of people eagerly line up at cafés to happily hand over more than two dollars for a cup of coffee that costs less than a quarter to make. How do so many reasonable, intelligent, hard-working people (myself included) unflinchingly pay almost 10 times more money for a cup of coffee than it's worth?

The answer may lie in the "anchoring effect," a cognitive trick in which our minds get struck on an initial piece of information that affects later decisions. "Price anchoring" is a well-known strategy used by companies to get us to pay more while feeling like we're paying less. How is this done? By showing us the much higher prices of other beverages or items first, and forcing us to quickly make a comparison that usually results in a bad decision that somehow feels right. When your brain sees a $4 latte and a $6 Frappuccino front and center on a menu, suddenly that $2 coffee looks like a steal.

You don't have to look very far to find other ways in which companies use the anchoring effect to direct our food, drink, and dining decisions. The "healthy" options on chain restaurant menus that all contain fewer than 600 calories? Anchoring effect. Two dollars off an $18 martini during happy hour? Anchored. A $35 pasta dish right below a $55 steak on a menu? Anchors aweigh! 

While it's impossible to entirely escape the anchoring effect, the good news is that you now are aware of it, and can shut it down by spending a few extra minutes thinking things over before your purchase. Next time you feel strongly about a food or beverage choice, try to slow things down and use your brain wisely instead of letting anchors drag you down into the depths of dining regret.