As much as we like to think that we’re pretty smart consumers, there are some psychological tricks lurking in everyday life that can influence our behavior without our knowledge. A study from the U.K. has identified one of them — and it has to do with which soda you’ll order from a fast food menu.
Researchers from universities in Manchester and Warwick conducted a study to find out if the order in which sodas are listed on a menu affects how likely someone is to choose one over another. Previous research has shown that if people are satisfied with the very first item on a menu, they’ll automatically pick that one without weighing up other options. This means that that number one spot is the best location for products you want to sell the most of. Another reason for this is that we tend to have built-in ideas about how desirable something is based on where it’s positioned: we think that menus list their most popular items first — which they often do — so we’re more likely to choose that one.
The researchers settled on McDonald’s as a testing ground for these theories. Specifically, they honed in on the automated kiosks we’ve seen popping up more and more.
To test out their theories about how we select sodas, the researchers performed what they call a “nudge” — a small change that most users may not even notice, which can nevertheless affect behavior.
How cunning! Before the experiment, the first option on the McDonald’s soda menu was a medium Coke (their bestseller) while a medium Coke Zero was third. The researchers moved Coke Zero to the number one spot, and pushed regular Coke to last place.
Before you ask, yes, people are ready to swear that there is a difference between the two that goes beyond the sugar content.
This is just another example of the ongoing war between regular Coke and its newer, sugar-free version.
coke zero tastes better than regular coke and i’ll defend this til i die— zoe (@_zoodles) July 17, 2019
People are constantly pitting the two against each other:
Not to mention the middle child, Diet Coke.
Unpopular opinion: Diet Coke tastes better than regular Coke and Coke Zero.— Boyd's Backyard™ (@TheBoydP) June 19, 2019
The Coke family has a complicated history.
Not true. Diet Coke is the New Coke formula without sugar (actually New Coke was the Diet Coke formula but NEVER MIND THAT), and Coke Zero is the regular Coke formula without sugar. There's a noticeable difference in taste. https://t.co/RVbMIGHJBt— John Scalzi (@scalzi) January 10, 2019
Anyway, the researchers suggested that this menu change — shifting Coke Zero first and regular Coke last — would lead to an increase in sales of Coke Zero, and a drop in sales of regular Coke.
And lo and behold, they were right! According to analysis of the study by Forbes, over the 12 weeks after the menu was changed, the stores saw an overall eight percent decrease in sales of regular Coke, and a 30 percent increase in sales of Coke Zero, compared to the 12 weeks before the change.
Thanks, Ethan! Coke Zero + us is just the perfect match!— McDonald's (@McDonalds) March 14, 2019
Apart from making us all feel like guinea pigs in a thought experiment, this study could help restaurants decide how to structure their menus so that healthier food is prioritized.
Let's pretend to be health conscious by ordering coke zero instead of the regular. 😛— Badass Unicorn (@dalsidai) October 9, 2017
However, some people are skeptical about just how much healthier Coke Zero is…
Enter the Twitter philosophers:
Some men are like Coke Zero. Like they still hurt you but you can almost convince yourself it’s better for you than the other men who are like regular Coke.— babe (@angeliccunt) June 27, 2018
Are we just fooling ourselves here?
Some people have fallen for tricks before…
Another good way to encourage people to try something new: drop the price.
I bought regular coke instead of Coke Zero because it was on sale and wtffff— dm for new acc (@exyluvrr) July 13, 2019
Far from changing people’s habits, this sometimes just enrages them.
Accidentally picked up regular Coke instead of Coke Zero and my day is ruined— Rolo 🐇 (@solarolai) July 11, 2019
Meanwhile, the true rebels are ordering Cokes in a way the researchers never predicted.
Coke Zero is good. Coke Zero with a splash of regular Coke is better. pic.twitter.com/47TUY30EMW— SketchTheJournalist (@SketchtheJ) June 30, 2018
It’s logic-defying genius (or carbonated madness.)
Yooooo I just watched someone mix Coke Zero, Diet Coke, and regular Coke. It’s either the worst or the best idea— Rachel Hutto (@rhutto3) December 6, 2018
Whether you’re a regular Coke regular or think Coke Zero is the hero, next time you’re checking out a menu, keep an eye on which product gets that number one spot — and see if it impacts your dining companions’ decisions.