I want what she’s eating, thanks

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

When you peruse a menu, are you independent-minded? Many of us are not. A study at Duke University found that diners are at least 13% more likely to order a dish if they know it’s among a restaurant’s most popular.

Duke University economist Hanming Fang, one of the study’s authors, says people have too much information. And by picking the most popular dishes, diner are ‘learning from others who faced similar choices.’

This study might be called something simple like ‘How to Order.’ But it’s an academic paper, so it’s called, “Observational Learning: Evidence from a Randomized Natural Field Experiment,” and it’s being published the June issue of the American Economic Review. Fang’s co-authors are Hongbin Cai and Yuyu Chen of Peking University.

The study was conducted in Beijing in 2006, at the Mei Zhou Dong Po restaurants. The chain has 13 locations and offers sit-down dining with about 60 menu items for a mid-level price. For the first week, the researchers gathered data on customer food choices without intervening. Then, during the second week, they randomly placed placards on some tables, in addition to the restaurant’s usual menu. Half of the placards named the top-five most popular dishes from the previous week; the other half listed five sample dishes that were not identified as being popular.

Demand for the top-five dishes increased by 13% to 20%, the researchers said. “In contrast, being merely mentioned as some sample dishes does not significantly boost their demand.”

So are the diners learning from others, or just following the herd?

“Our experimental design couldn’t completely distinguish conformity from this observational learning effect,” Fang said. “But if conformity is at work -- conformity to whom? These popularity rankings are based on decisions made by people who ate at the restaurant a week earlier. The diners in our study probably don’t know them, so any conformity effect is likely to be weak.”

The paper noted the study was aided by the Chinese custom of a table sharing dishes that are ordered and paid for by a single host. This allowed the researchers to treat each table and bill as a single decision unit, without having to guess which person ordered what.


(The photo shows the table placard, which says: ‘Top Five Dishes in this Restaurant According to Plates Sold’ and the dishes, Dongpo Rib, Szechuan Style; Kungpao Chicken; Asparagus beef; Dongpo Pork Belly; Beef with Soybean Flower. Photo provided by Duke.)

-- Mary MacVean