See if this sounds familiar. You and three other friends have gone to a nice restaurant for dinner. The waiter passes the menus around and you are eyeing the pork chops in some kind of fancy glazed sauce. The lamb chops sound nice too, but your preference is clearly for the pork chops. The waiter is going around the table taking orders. Your good friend who is ordering just before you goes for the pork chops. You hear that and decide to order the lamb chops because you don’t want to get the same thing your friend got. Sound familiar? Why does this happen? Why didn’t you choose your favorite dish? Do other people act this way? That’s what Dan Ariely and Jonathan Levav asked themselves. As researchers of consumer behavior, they are well qualified to search for the answer.
Their basic framework for attacking this problem is to look at people’s behavior through their goals. In these kinds of group situations, people could have different goals: satisfying their own taste, or engaging in collective variety seeking. The researchers argue that we try to balance these goals but in certain situations one or the other dominates even if that may not be the optimal goal for us. Hence even though we should be trying to satisfy our own taste, in a group setting (such as with ordering food) we might go for collective variety seeking even though there is no need. Perhaps we do it because of the image we want to project of not being followers.
To sort these things out, they conducted a few studies. In the first one they collected lunch time order slips from a popular Chinese restaurant for all parties of two or more people. One can get a sense of how much variety a group seeks by looking at how many different dishes they offer. But to what should that be compared? They came up with a clever solution to isolate group effects. They took the orders of every individual in the sample and randomly re-combined them to form virtual lunch groups. Now looking at the real and virtual groups they could clearly see the difference in diversity of dish choices (or variety seeking). The real groups sought more variety, implying that social factors made people choose something other than what someone before them had chosen. Interesting what you can do with such simple data.
The second study involved beer and was more of a traditional experiment. The authors posed as waiters at a local microbrewery (ah, the things one has to do for research!) and offered free beer samples to patrons in groups. After describing the beers, the “waiters” took orders from the patrons for one of the four free sample beers. The difference was in the way the order was taken. One group was allowed to do it in the normal way by calling out their orders one at a time, thus allowing later orders to be influenced by earlier ones. The other group was asked to mark its preference on the menu card, ensuring that each order was private.
When the results were tallied, the researchers found that the group with private preferences preferred much less variety than the one with public preferences. Also, the patrons in the private preference group were more satisfied with their samples indicating that those in the other group had subjugated their preferences for the cause of group variety seeking and were ultimately less satisfied with their choices. Furthermore, the researchers also looked at the satisfaction of the first person to place an order as this person cannot be influenced by the choices of the others. Turns out the first customers were much more satisfied than the later customers as they were able to order exactly what they wanted without any social pressure. So, it appears that group variety seeking is a real phenomenon and seems to occur quite frequently. It’s possible we do this because of a need to be seen as being unique. Unfortunately, by doing this we end up with choices that leave us less satisfied.
So, how can you overcome this problem the next time you go out to dine? The authors have two suggestions. First, hold fast to your choice and don’t let it be affected by what someone else orders. If that’s not possible, then just order first!
This research was conducted by Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University and Jonathan Levav, Associate Professor of Marketing at Columbia University and was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.