Neuroscience Secrets that Influence the Dining Experience

In every dining experience, the brain assimilates sensory information beyond taste to form an opinion about that meal: from the way the hostess greets you, to the font used on the menu, to how friendly the server is, and the visual presentation of the food. Taste is...

by far the most impressionable of our senses.

Why do we like what we like? There is an odd science behind preferences.  The way we evaluate a dining experience isn’t as straightforward as one might think. One test that has demonstrated how we experience food goes far beyond taste was conducted by the culinary firm, CatchOn.  Researchers compared the reactions of diners to two dishes.  One group of diners read the list of ingredients on a card placed on the table. The other group was greeted by the chef who introduced the dish and the ingredients as well as shared a childhood story that inspired the dish.  The group that received the story prior to eating the dish rated the meal and overall dining experience significantly higher – despite eating the exact same dish as the group who merely read the ingredients.

There are some powerful subconscious forces at work that influence what we like and what we don’t like.  Here are a few neuroscience secrets that influence the dining experience. 


Imagine you’re at a restaurant trying to decide what to order.  You debate about whether to go with the chicken or the lobster. The chicken dish sounds delicious. You love lobster but it is a bit more expensive than you were prepared for.  As you’re musing your decision aloud, the server asks if he can help.  He says, “The lobster is good… no doubt about that, but the chicken is amazing … one of our signature dishes.  It’s one of my favorites.”  Ordering a less expensive menu item will impact his tip.  But in that very brief exchange, he stepped out of his role of taking your order and connected with you on a personal level – like he’s telling you a secret.  From a neurological perspective, he gained your trust and primed your brain to love your meal. You’ve formed an opinion of that dish before you even eat it.  Guess what happens when he suggests dessert?  You’re much more likely to accept his recommendation and like it.


The most consistent finding about personal preference is that we like what is familiar.

In one study, researchers showed English speaking participants who did not know Chinese a range of Chinese characters.  They were just instructed to look at them and pay attention.  Later, he shows the participants another set of characters – some repeated from the first set – and he asked them to guess what they meant. Participants threw out random words like dog, house, soccer, love, family, etc.  Random guesses? It turns out the guesses weren’t random at all.  If a person had seen the character before – even just briefly – they were much more likely to assume the word was associated with something positive like love, happiness, and joy.  They also rated their mental state to be more positive after viewing them compared to after viewing the others.  All of this even though none of the participants remembered having seen the characters before!

Diners who see a dish featured on the specials board, and again on the menu insert and then hear the server describe it are forming an impression of the dish based upon familiarity alone. If it also happens to appeal to their taste, there is a good likelihood that they will order it and evaluate the meal positively – if it is prepared as advertised.  


By its most basic definition, cognitive fluency is the ease with which we process information to generate an understanding of what that information means. This ease or difficulty refers not only to the experience of a task or instruction itself, but the feeling people associate with that task.  Research shows that our perception of information can be dramatically influenced by how simple or complex the font is. The general rule is if it’s hard to read, it’s hard to do. If the goal is to convince the reader to perform some kind of task, a simple, easy to read font with simple words and sentence structure is best because it minimizes the perceived effort of the task.

 However, there is one situation where fancy, hard to read fonts work the other way. Researchers presented participants with restaurant menus printed in simple fonts as well as more complex fonts. Those who saw the difficult font rated the skills needed by the chef significantly higher than the subjects who saw the simple font for the exact same dishes. They also suggested that the complex fonts gave them the sense that the ingredients were of higher quality. A later study found that fonts that look like they are hand-drawn creates the feeling that the food is prepared with greater love and care.

If you’re considering changing your menu and pricing, you might also consider changing the font.  In addition, applying these principles of cognitive fluency to the description of the dishes could amplify the effect of the fancy font.  Long descriptions with colorful adjectives will also slow the reader down and subconsciously suggest that the dish requires greater effort to prepare.


We aren’t very good at evaluating the value of something independently thanks to an unconscious bias called the contrast effect.  We tend to judge them relative to each other rather than on their own merit. we tend to make decisions based less on which option will best suit our purposes and based more on what feels like the most advantageous choice compared to the other choices. Our perception is altered once we start to compare things based upon the concept of “asymmetric domination.” 

For example, if the wine selection is comprised of $8 and $11 glasses of wine, statistically speaking more people will order the  $8 glass.  However, by adding a $14 glass to the selection, more guests will be inclined to order the $11 glass than the $8 glass. Research shows that mid-priced items are ordered more frequently than the most expensive and the least expensive items. Placing a more expensive item as the first choice will make the rest of the dishes seem more reasonably priced. Strategically pricing the items with the highest profit margins in the mid-price range and listing them after more expensive dishes is a smart way to nudge guests to order certain dishes over others. 


Neuromarketing research has discovered that rituals help us form emotional connections with products and brands and make them memorable. Once we find a ritual that we like, the brain likes the familiarity and ultimately that translates into loyalty.

For example, In the early 1900s, revenue at the Guinness Ale Company was way down.  Customers didn’t want to wait the few minutes it took for the foam to settle and the bartender to top it off.  The company turned the annoyance into a ritual that would inspire an emotional connection with the brand…and it worked.  100 years later, Guinness is still going strong and associated with that experience.


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