Why We’re Irrational When We Order a Beer

October 5,2012 by 14 Comments

Is studying the psychology of a beer drinker like studying the psychology of a fruit fly? Shallow and futile?

I like to think we have a few more marbles rolling around, and it seems we can even offer valuable insights into human behavior.

What brings this up is a study in a book I just finished called Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. I highly recommend it by the way.

The study took place at the Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill and went like this:

  • Ariely, posing as a waiter, approached a group of people and announce that the brewery was offering free samples. He then described the four beers: An amber, lager, IPA, and wheat.
  • Ariely then asked one of the patrons what they wanted and proceeded down the line taking beer orders.
  • After drinking their samples, the participants filled out a survey asking them how much they enjoyed their beer and if they regretted their order.
  • The experiment was conducted 50 times, and then repeated another 50 times but with a twist. The twist was that instead of ordering their beer out loud, the participants wrote down their beer orders, thus keeping them private.

The results? Here is Ariely:

“We found that when people order out loud in sequence, they choose differently from when they order in private. When ordering sequentially (publicly), they order more types of beer per table – in essence opting for variety. A basic way to understand this is by thinking about the Summer Wheat Ale. This brew was not very attractive to most people. But when the other beers were “taken,” our participants felt that they had to choose something different – perhaps to show the others – and so they chose a different beer, one they may not have initially wanted but one that conveyed their individuality.”

Predictably Irrational book
And as you might guess, the participants’ enjoyment of the beer went down when they ordered in public because they ended up with a beer they didn’t want just to have something different.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the same study conducted with food in Hong Kong yielded the opposite results. The participants were more likely to order the same dish as the person ahead of them. Americans cared more about uniqueness while the Chinese cared more about conformity.

What does this mean? I know that personally I would have acted exactly how this study predicted, but for different reasons. As a beer geek I often put trying as many different beers as possible over drinking the best beer every time I go out.

I do notice this trend when out drinking in large groups though. They key is that there has to be a good selection available. If it’s all BMC beer and Fat Tire, then we’re going to have a table full of Fat Tire.

What about you? Do the people at your table tend to order different beers, or are there usually repeats?

p.s. I apologies for insulting fruit flies for my personal gain.

About Billy Broas

He is the founder of The Homebrew Academy, a BJCP beer judge, and the homebrewing expert on the Rocky Mountain PBS television show Colorado Brews. He lives in the fine beer town of Denver, Colorado.

14 responses to “Why We’re Irrational When We Order a Beer”

  1. I see this “unique-ness” often, especially with food. I even will hear, or say myself, “Thats what I was going to order!” And then the person will change their order to be different. The results make sense as a group of craft beer drinkers could get a feel for all the beers offered by choosing differently, but if you don’t know who is getting what, you will get the beer you want/feel will be best.

    • Billy Broas says:

      “That’s what I was going to order!”

      GREAT call on that. I know I’ve said that before, and it doesn’t make any sense. Also, here are a couple interesting things I neglected to mention in the post.

      1. The participants were watched and they did not share their beers.
      2. The first person to order out loud was always the happiest with their beer because no beers were “taken”.

  2. Sheppy says:

    The study makes sense to me. But, when it comes to ordering beer, I think I am set enough in my ways that I don’t think it matters if I order out loud or write it down. My first goal is to order something I’ve not had before (or at least untappd SAYS I have not had before). Then, it sort of depends on my mood. I don’t think what other people order plays any part in what I order.

    Maybe, that is just how I think I would act, though. Certainly an interesting study.

    • Billy Broas says:

      l laughed at “untappd SAYS I have not had before”. That happens to me all the time, but if you drink a beer and didn’t record it in Untappd, did you really drink it?

  3. Aaron Mendez says:

    Hi Billy, wondering where I can read up on the actual laws regarding the shipment or delivery of alcohol?

  4. Josh says:

    In my circle we typically order different brews and taste around the table. I can understand the reservation in doing this during an experiment though and the results are interesting! I wonder if everyone would have been so quick to choose a beer not “taken” if some funky sour beers had been on the menu =p

    • Billy Broas says:

      Good point. Likewise if something like Pliny the Younger was one of the options I’m sure we’d see a lot more repeats. It’s good they chose fairly neutral beers.

  5. Chad says:

    When my wife and I go out we tend to try different beers. I more so then my wife. She likes her beers incredibly hoppy while I tend to go a little mellow on the hops but make up for it in the variety of beers I try.

    When drinking with friends most of them tend to get the same beers or at least the same beer types with ales being the most popular. Gone are the days lager with my group of friends.

  6. Ben says:

    Very interesting study, indeed…and I know I’m guilty of ordering something different just to have some variety at the table! But I think it’s better that way – more types of beers for the greater good. I’d rather order publicly and get something different, even if that may not have been my 1st choice had I ordered privately. As long as it’s not a rare, hard-to-find beer you wanted, then I say go for variety. I would never order something I actually didn’t want though, of course :)
    Also, I wish they would have contacted me when doing this study – we go to Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill all the time!

    • Billy Broas says:

      Oh man I wish you had taken part in the study. We could hear the other side of it. Very cool you go to this brewery. If you see people filling out surveys in the future, jump on board ; )

  7. FedoraDave says:

    What I find most interesting about this story (and the comments already posted) is that there seems to be two trends, neither of which I feel I’d follow, myself.

    First, there’s the study’s observed trend; that of choosing based on “individuality.”

    Second, there’s the trend I’ve observed in the comments; that of choosing something you haven’t had before.

    Me, I think I would tend to order based on one of two criteria (or maybe a combination of them); what am I in the mood for, and what do I think I’m going to be ordering, and what will pair best with it?

    One night, I might feel like an amber, but another night I might feel like an IPA. Or I might be trending toward ordering fish instead of red meat, which would make me feel more like a pilsner or IPA than a wheat.

    Do you know of any follow-up to this study in which such questions were asked? I’d also be interested in knowing the “beer experience” of the consumers, because that would factor heavily in their decision-making, as well. In other words, I don’t think this study is (or was meant to be) definitive.

    • Billy Broas says:

      Good points Dave. Compared with the rest of the beer drinking population, I’d say readers of this blog are more likely to choose something they haven’t had before. I’m not aware of any followup to the study, but it would be cool to see a comparison between people in a high end beer bar vs say, a sports bar.

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