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All-You-Can-Eat Buffets: The Scourge of Modern Behavioral Economics

For a glimpse into the weirdness of human decision-making, look no further than the sneeze-guarded smorgasbords scattered across the U.S.

Who doesn’t love a buffet? (Jerks, that’s who.) But as we browse through the long rows of glistening, greasy abundance, stopping to pick at appetizers and pile on the spare ribs, is there more going on than meets the eye? Are we assessing our sense of satisfaction, sizing up the offerings, being drawn to each item with the guidance of a leading hand? Maybe even some kind of “invisible hand?” Are we getting the most out of our buffet experience? The buffet, long thought to merely be a gathering place for the world’s most fantastic people, is actually a vortex of interesting dynamics and incentives. Economists, psychologists, and other researchers have occasionally turned to the smorgasbord and all-you-can-eat models for unique economic insights and a glimpse into the weirdness of human behavior.

For example, a 2008 Cornell University study examined the effects of lowering the price of an all-you-can-eat pizza deal. People still had the option to cram as many slices as they could into their gullets, but when paying less, the same customers tended to eat considerably less. In these cases, the researchers concluded that people ate towards their sense of value rather than their appetite. And in 2012, Michael Leonard, an economist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia wrote a fun, short piece about the economics of Sin City buffets, after a trip to Las Vegas with his son led him to musings on fixed costs, the over/under on the establishment’s marginal revenue, and the differences between cost, price, and value.

But what is it about a buffet that gets people so excited? Something about all those choices, maybe? According to Science Daily, “Given a choice between…their absolute favorite food or…a choice from a buffet of options, capuchin monkeys will opt for variety.” The article echoes an earlier probe into human primate behavior, which discovered that people ate almost 43 percent more M&Ms when there were 10 versus seven colors of candy in the bowl. In fact, the more options we have, the more us hungry, hungry hominids will eat in general, leading to the next point in buffet economics: the glutton factor.

Bread: How they getcha

An article in Forbes studies buffet econ through the case of Bill Wisth, a giant of a man who took to protest when a so-called all-you-can-eat fish fry turned him out for eating too much fish. (This also happened to Homer Simpson.) Certainly, this is a fraudulent, unsportsmanlike, and downright un-American way to act on the part of the buffet’s proprietor, but Forbes makes the interesting point that this kind of situation should in fact come up all the time, and according to the rules of economics, all-you-can-eat buffets shouldn’t even exist:

When someone offers all-you-can-eat to any customers, those that show up should be ones for whom the amount that they can eat is worth more than the price they expect to pay. After all, if the buffet costs $10 no matter how much you eat then those who eat the most will get the most value out of it. But the average amount consumed can’t exceed the price, otherwise the restaurant will lose money and go out of business. So if the average amount consumed is $16 worth of food, then the restaurant will have to raise the price to above $16. But this means those who ate more than $10 but less than $16 worth of food will no longer find it worthwhile to eat there, so they will stop going, and the average customer left will be those who eat more than $16 worth. This process continues, until there is only one guy left going to the buffet, and he eats $300 worth of fish and is charged exactly $300 for it.

Other researchers have correlated the quantity of repeat trips one makes to a Chinese buffet with a set of traits, including body mass index, or BMI. While this conclusion—overweight people eat more—might seem obvious, the researchers also connect the quest for seconds and thirds with factors like plate size, how long one spends surveying their options before taking their initial serving, and whether the patron is seated facing, or turned away from, the steaming trays of lo, chow, and other various meins.

People also may think they’re at buffets to eat a lot of cheap food, but according to science, the cheaper that buffet is, the less happy you’ll be. Yet another study from the Cornell Food Lab, (surely the world’s leading experts on buffet studies) released just a few months ago, teaches us the hazards of inexpensive eats—aside from, as we learned earlier, causing us to eat less, low prices at buffets leave people feeling less satisfied. That’s right, paying more for one’s food is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, also tied to our sense of value.

Mortadella/Salmonella. Photo by Stephane Mignon via Flickr

So what to take away from all of this?

Eat at pricier buffets with as many options as possible, in order to maximize your own satisfaction and the appeal of the meal you’re taking on. Use a large plate, and sit facing the buffet. By doing these things, you increase your chances of actually “beating the house”—remember, it’s a numbers game for the restaurant, so you don’t walk away a hero unless you, like Mr. Wisth, can eat an above-average amount. On the other hand, you can also take Professor Leonard’s words to heart, and remember that value is not the same as cost, and maybe the real winners are those who are happy with less and don’t develop pulmonary embolisms before their 40th birthdays. But if you absolutely must get the most bang for your buck at the local Country Kitchen Buffet, consider this handy guide to beating Big Buffet from 2010—it’s comprehensive, slightly demented, and bears the following disclaimer: “This is for instructional purposes only and should not be adhered to by rational human beings.

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