Tonawanda News

August 11, 2013

DUVALL: A subtle nudge toward the right decision

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — One of my first college jobs at age 18 was waiting tables at the now-defunct Country Kitchen restaurant on Niagara Falls Boulevard. 

Truth be told, though I honestly did try hard, I wasn’t very good at it.

Despite failing to remember to tell the kitchen to hold the tomatoes or put the sauce on the side, I was then — and still am — a studious observer of people’s behavior.

In one specific instance I used it to my advantage.

The Country Kitchen menu afforded diners ordering a sandwich the choice of accompanying French fries or a house salad. I silently despised customers who opted for the salad because I had to make said salad — more work for me and another thing for me to forget or screw up.

Over nearly two years of waiting tables I happened upon a discovery when taking orders that allowed me to minimize the number of salads I had to make. Though it may seem a stretch, there’s a public policy implication to my little salad scheme. I’ll get to that in a bit, but here’s what I figured out:

There were three options when taking someone’s tuna melt order: No. 1, ignore the fries or salad question entirely and hope the customer was too dumb to notice they could have made a choice, treating French fries as the default option. No. 2, ask the customer “are French fries OK with that tuna melt?” and hope they say yes without asking what the alternatives are. No. 3, ask the customer, straight up, “would you prefer French fries or a salad on the side?”

The first option was successful (meaning no salad requests) about half the time. The other half, customers would ask what comes with the sandwich (because they were too stupid to read the menu). Then I would be forced to inform them, “French fries or a salad.” When customers felt they had reached the fries-or-salad conclusion on their own, I was subject to their whims and more often than not, they got a salad. Good for their heart, bad for me.

The second option was by far the least successful because it invited a follow-up question from the diner. My asking, “are French fries OK?” would almost always be followed by “what else can I get?” Upon hearing the answer to their question, “a salad,” I had unwittingly eliminated French fries from the equation and, no kidding, 90 percent of the time they would order the salad. Failure again. A less observant server who used this approach would be making a whole lot more salads than I ever did (presuming, of course, I didn’t forget to make the salad entirely).

The third option, allowing customers to weigh equally the French fries and the salad by asking them which they’d prefer, was by far the most successful. It’s simple when you think about it. Presented with a bowl of lettuce and some veggies or a pile of deep fried somethings, most Americans are taking the deep fried whatever-the-hell-it-is.

So why have I taken you all on this long walk? To tell you this: We aren’t really all that smart when it comes to making decisions. Much of it relies on perception and context. As a society, if we understand this and try to work around it, we can all benefit and I’m pleased to report we’re starting to do just that.

The Obama administration has employed a number of experts in the burgeoning field of behavioral economics, a marriage between psychology and economics now being fused with public policy-making that seeks to find ways to encourage more people to behave in ways that benefit themselves.

Humans are inherently lazy thinkers, as the salad story demonstrates. We often forego long-term benefit for short-term gain, but we tend to value the long-term more in the abstract. Ask the same person who picked fries over a salad what they’re planning to buy at the grocery store and they’ll almost certainly rattle off all the healthy meals they plan to eat sometime in the future.

This most certainly has public policy implications.

We’re an intensely partisan society. Imagine if voter registration forms were divorced from party membership. You register as a voter, which is easy. Then if you really want to be a Republican or a Democrat (or a Whig for all I care), you have to call the party to enroll or wait for the party to call on you. That would leave the vast majority of Americans where they belong be in terms of party affiliation — unaffiliated. And more open to voting on the merits because you’re not on one team or the other.

Another example: Imagine if the default option was for people to participate in organ donation when you signed up for a driver’s license and instead of checking the box that, yes, you’d like to participate, you were instead asked to check “no” to opt out? Organ donation rates would skyrocket, more people awaiting transplants would get the life-saving organs they need and those with their objections would still be able to opt out just a easily as those who presently opt in.

And, assuming you’re not a lazy or incompetent waiter, tell people their sandwich comes with a salad and, if they inquire otherwise, then tell them they can have French fries instead.

There are simple psychological tools to encourage behavior in good and not-so-good ways. We should be exploring — and encouraging — the former.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.