Thoughts on Game Theory: Why Do Restaurants Serve My Food to Everyone?

As an impartial observer, I’ve often wondered why, when I go to a restaurant in a group and order a dish, do they bring my order along with everyone else’s, and then serve my food that I ordered to everyone on the table! For example, if I order six dumplings, and there are six people in the group, the waiter will casually give each person a dumpling, and I get only one. Whereas I ordered six thinking that I would eat all of them. As a result, my hunger is not satiated.

Also, if I want to eat well, I must have the dishes that others have ordered which I may not like. My wife says that this is good etiquette, and that my not understanding this simple fact highlights my lack of social graces. As a person with a suspicious mind however (and a game theory one at that!), I have a different take on the issue.

When a group goes to a restaurant, either they all share the bill equally or each pays for themselves. It is considered less awkward and simpler if the group (all things being equal), split the bill equally. This means that as an individual, when I want to order something on the menu, the price of whatever I order drops proportionately to the number of people on the table. For example, if an item I want (say king prawns) costs $50, then I will only have to pay $10 if my group has five people.

Now I have no control whatsoever on what other people order. By not ordering anything expensive, I can’t guarantee that others will do the same. Therefore, it is in my best interests to order everything I want without looking at the price since I will never again get an 80% discount! True, others may share my meal, but in an expensive restaurant, you’re usually not paying for the raw materials of the food itself but for the ambiance, the nicely dressed waiters, etc.Expensive Restaurant

Image Credit: Matt and Kim Rudge

Since we assume that each person in the group is rational and is thinking just like me, they will order expensive things too, and so the total bill turns out to be extremely high. A variation of the prisoner’s dilemma actually.

Of course, if it was decided beforehand that each person will pay for what they order, then I will be much more circumspect about what I decide to eat. I can’t afford to pay $50 for 5 shrimps!

Knowing this, it is in the restaurant’s best interests to ensure that everyone shares the bill equally, since only then will each person go berserk with their orders. Therefore, they must operate in such a way that it becomes very difficult to gauge who has eaten what.

One of the ways to do this is to serve everyone’s dish to everyone under the cloak of “etiquette”. In fact, I won’t be surprised if they invented the practice in the first place since and started calling it Good Manners. Good Manners it may be, but it’s also good business sense.

Of course, if you’re a greedy person and want to sample expensive food that you would never normally eat, you must get into a group of people you don’t know very well and who are not very well off. You must then convince them to go to an expensive restaurant so that you will be the only one to order expensive food and make them share the bill. I would assume you can only do this a couple of times before your group started to feel the pinch.

Sometimes however, a person’s personality can be so captivating and charming that others forgive them. Or say you’re a beautiful woman in the company of four men, they will not only forgive you, but fall all over themselves in fighting over your bill. You can then show how independent you are by paying “your share,” when actually you’ve shifted over all the expensive food’s cost to your lackeys!

3 comments to Thoughts on Game Theory: Why Do Restaurants Serve My Food to Everyone?

  • Raymond

    You answered your own question with——

    “if it was decided beforehand that each person will pay for what they order…..”

    I have stood at grocery checkout lines where on more than one occasion observed people buying steak and lobster with a food stamp card. No law was broken, but…….

    Are they buying it because they have good taste or because they considered it a freebie? I think both.

    Come to think of it, my daughters order up when my wife and I take them out to our occasional nice restaurant.
    Whereas if they knew they were paying for the meal, their eyes make it to right hand side of the menu, where prices are listed.

  • Anupa

    I would definitely NOT want to go out for lunch with you! That aside, sharing food tends to bond people and enhance group dynamics. And so, yes, I agree with your wife when she says that social etiquette demands that you share food when you’re out in a group. It IS good manners! And of course, it allows you to experience a wide range of food.

  • Great article. I have even been to restaurants that explicitly say they will not split the bill–a sure sign the owner wants everyone to overpay :)

    Like others I have gotten very angry overpaying for several years, particularly at birthday parties with a large number of people. I’ve blogged about how groups should organize fixed price menus and even consider asking people to order in advance. Everyone knows what they are getting into so everyone is prepared with money and the party is more fun.

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