The $69 hot dog is on the menu to sell the $20 cheeseburger

Absurdly priced menu items are more than a publicity gimmick. They're an application of “anchoring,” a cognitive phenomenon discovered by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s. Whenever we try to estimate a numerical value, we are unconsciously influenced by related numbers just considered. In this case, the diner in a touristy Manhattan restaurant is trying to decide how much he or she can afford to spend. The familiar prices back home don't apply.

That diner isn't going to order a $69 hot dog, but might happily opt for an $17.95 cheeseburger. The hot dog makes the cheeseburger appear reasonable in comparison (even though $17.95 would be a ridiculous price for a cheeseburger almost anywhere else). In scores of careful laboratory studies, price contrasts like that affect decisions. Restaurateurs and consultants believe it works on menus, too.

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Anyone interested in the psychological tricks companies employ, should read Poundstone's book Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)