m01229, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
m01229, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

8 Psychological Tricks of Restaurant Menus

m01229, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
m01229, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

A restaurant’s menu is more than just a random list of dishes. It has likely been strategically tailored at the hands of a menu engineer or consultant to ensure it's on-brand, easy to read, and most importantly, profitable. Here are a few ways restaurants use their menus to influence what you’re having for dinner.


The best menus account for the psychological theory known as the “paradox of choice,” which says that the more options we have, the more anxiety we feel. The golden number? Seven options per food category, tops (seven appetizers, seven entrees, etc.). “When we include over seven items, a guest will be overwhelmed and confused, and when they get confused they’ll typically default to an item they’ve had before,” says menu engineer Gregg Rapp. No shame in sticking with what you know, but a well-designed menu might entice you to try something a bit different (and a bit more expensive).

Some restaurants have lost sight of this rule. For example, McDonald’s initially served just a few items but now offers more than 140. Yet the chain's revenue fell by 11 percent in the first quarter of 2015. “As we complicate menus, what we’re actually doing is tormenting the guest,” says restaurant consultant Aaron Allen. “When the guest leaves they feel less satiated, and part of it comes down to a perception that they might have made the wrong choice.” If you leave with a bad taste in your mouth, you’re less likely to come back. And in an industry where repeat customers account for about 70 percent of sales, getting diners to return is the ultimate goal. 


Including a nice-looking picture alongside a food item increases sales by 30 percent, according to Rapp.  

In one Iowa State University study, researchers tested a digital display of a salad on kids at a YMCA camp. Campers who saw the salad photo were up to 70 percent more likely to order a salad for lunch. “You respond to the image on the display like you would respond to a plate in front of you,” said Brian Mennecke, an associate professor of information systems. “If you’re hungry you respond by saying, ‘I’ll have what’s in that picture.’” This effect is even more powerful when it comes to digital signs that move or rotate, which fast food restaurants are beginning to implement. “The more vivid the image, in terms of movement, color and accuracy of representation, the more realistic, the more it’s going to stimulate your response to it,” Mennecke said. 

Of course, you can have too much of a good thing. “If you crowd too many photos, it starts to cheapen the perception of the food,” Allen says. “The more items that are photographed on the menu, the guest perception is of a lower quality.” Most high-end restaurants avoid photos to maintain a perceived level of fanciness. 


One way to encourage you to spend more money is by making price tags as inconspicuous as possible. “We get rid of dollar signs because that’s a pain point,” says Allen. “They remind people they’re spending money.” Instead of $12.00 for that club sandwich, you’re likely to see it listed as 12.00, or even just 12. One Cornell University study found that written-out prices (“twelve dollars”) also encourage guests to spend more. “Your pricing format will set the tone of the restaurant,” says Rapp. “So $9.95 I’ve found is a friendlier price than a $10, which has attitude to it.” 

Dotted lines leading from the menu item to its price are a cardinal sin of menu design. “That menu was introduced before modern typesetting,” says Allen. “It was a way of keeping the page looking properly formatted, but what happens is the guest reads down the right side of the menu and then looks to the left to see what the lower price point can afford them.” The solution? “Nested” pricing, or listing the price discretely after the meal description in the same size font, so your eyes just glide right over it. 


On menus, perspective is everything. One trick is to include an incredibly expensive item near the top of the menu, which makes everything else seem reasonably priced. Your server never expects you to actually order that $300 lobster, but it sure makes the $70 steak look positively thrifty, doesn’t it?

Slightly more expensive items (so long as they still fall within the boundaries of what the customer is willing to pay) also suggest the food is of higher quality. This pricing structure can literally make customers feel more satisfied when they leave. For example, one study gave participants an $8 buffet or a $4 buffet. While the food was exactly the same, the $8 buffet was rated as tastier.


Just like supermarkets put profitable items at eye level, restaurants design their menus to make the most of your gaze. The upper right corner is prime real estate, Rapp explains. “The upper right is where a person will go on a blank sheet of paper or in a magazine,” he says. That’s where the most profitable items usually go. “Then we build the appetizers on the upper left and salads underneath that. You want to keep the menu flowing well.”  

Another trick is to create space around high-profit items by putting them in boxes or otherwise separating them from the rest of the options. “When you put in a pocket of negative space, you pull the eye there,” writes Allen. “Putting negative space around an item can call attention to it and help you sell it.” 


According to Allen, different colors help conjure feelings and “motivate” behavior. Blue is a very soothing color, so often times it is used to create a calming effect,” he says. And have you ever noticed the number of restaurants that utilize red and yellow in their branding? Conclusive evidence on how color affects our mood is hard to find, but one review suggests that red stimulates the appetite, while yellow draws in our attention. “The two combined are the best food coloring pairings,” Allen says.


Longer, more detailed descriptions sell more food. Nearly 30 percent more, according to one Cornell study. “The more copy you write on the menu item, the less it costs in a customer’s mind because you’re giving them more for their money,” explains Rapp. So plain old “chocolate pudding” becomes “satin chocolate pudding.” Customers also rated the more thoroughly described food as tasting better. 

“People taste what you tell them they’re tasting,” Rapp says. Consider this: In another study, researchers presented two different groups with the same red wine but with different labels. One label said North Dakota (do they even make wine there?), the other said California. In taste tests, the “California” wine squarely defeated the “North Dakota” wine even though both groups' glasses were filled with “Two-Buck Chuck”. Also, “those who believed they had been drinking California wine ate 12% more of their meal than those who instead believed they drank North Dakota wine.” 

Adjectives like “line-caught,” “farm-raised,” or “locally-sourced” are big turn-ons for customers. “These things all help increase perception of quality of the item,” Allen says. This verbiage is so effective that many states have “Truth in Menu” laws designed to prevent restaurants from lying about things like how a piece of meat was raised or where it originated.  


We all have that one meal that takes us back to childhood. Restaurants know this tendency, and they use it to their advantage. “Alluding to past time periods can trigger happy memories of family, tradition, and nationalism,” one study says. “Customers sometimes like the feeling of tasting something wholesome and traditional because ‘They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.’” Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to order “Grandma’s Chicken Soup."

9 Curses for Book Thieves From the Middle Ages and Beyond

It may seem extreme to threaten the gallows for the theft of a book, but that's just one example in the long, respected tradition of book curses. Before the invention of moveable type in the West, the cost of a single book could be tremendous. As medievalist Eric Kwakkel explains, stealing a book then was more like stealing someone’s car today. Now, we have car alarms; then, they had chains, chests … and curses. And since the heyday of the book curse occurred during the Middle Ages in Europe, it was often spiced with Dante-quality torments of hell.

The earliest such curses go back to the 7th century BCE. They appear in Latin, vernacular European languages, Arabic, Greek, and more. And they continued, in some cases, into the era of print, gradually fading as books became less expensive. Here are nine that capture the flavor of this bizarre custom.


A book curse from the Arnstein Bible, circa 1172
A curse in the Arnstein Bible
British Library // Public Domain

The Arnstein Bible at the British Library, written in Germany circa 1172, has a particularly vivid torture in mind for the book thief: “If anyone steals it: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.”


A 15th-century French curse featured by Marc Drogin in his book Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses has a familiar "House That Jack Built"-type structure:

“Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown,
And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast,
And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.”


A book curse excerpted from the 13th-century Historia scholastica
A book curse from the Historia scholastica
Yale Beinecke Library // Public Domain

In The Medieval Book, Barbara A. Shailor records a curse from Northeastern France found in the 12th-century Historia scholastica: “Peter, of all the monks the least significant, gave this book to the most blessed martyr, Saint Quentin. If anyone should steal it, let him know that on the Day of Judgment the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


Drogin also records this 13th-century curse from a manuscript at the Vatican Library, as notes. It escalates rapidly.

"The finished book before you lies;
This humble scribe don’t criticize.
Whoever takes away this book
May he never on Christ look.
Whoever to steal this volume durst
May he be killed as one accursed.
Whoever to steal this volume tries
Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!"


A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
Beinecke Library // Public Domain

An 11th-century book curse from a church in Italy, spotted by Kwakkel, offers potential thieves the chance to make good: “Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act.”


This book curse was written in a combination of Latin and German, as Drogin records:

"To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming 'oh, oh, oh!'
Remember, you deserved this woe."


This 18th-century curse from a manuscript found in Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, is written in Arabic: “Property of the monastery of the Syrians in honorable Jerusalem. Anyone who steals or removes [it] from its place of donation will be cursed from the mouth of God! God (may he be exalted) will be angry with him! Amen.”


A book curse in a 17th century manuscript cookbook
A book curse in a 17th century cookbook

A 17th-century manuscript cookbook now at the New York Academy of Medicine contains this inscription: "Jean Gembel her book I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her."


An ownership inscription on a 1632 book printed in London, via the Rochester Institute of Technology, contains a familiar motif:

“Steal not this Book my honest friend
For fear the gallows be yr end
For when you die the Lord will say
Where is the book you stole away.”


One of the most elaborate book curses found on the internet runs as follows: "For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change to a Serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain, crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no surcease to his Agony till he sink to Dissolution. Let Book-worms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment let the Flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye.”

Alas, this curse—still often bandied about as real—was in fact part of a 1909 hoax by the librarian and mystery writer Edmund Pearson, who published it in his "rediscovered" Old Librarian's Almanack. The Almanack was supposed to be the creation of a notably curmudgeonly 18th-century librarian; in fact, it was a product of Pearson's fevered imagination.

Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.


Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.


Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.


The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.


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