Slouching your way to work through the grey city streets, you spy one of the many urban oases more commonly known as a cafe. As you step up to the counter you notice something a bit different: in addition to the normal two size options there is a third, bigger one. And it's brought with it a new hierarchy: the coffee formerly known as "regular" is now "small"; "large" is now "regular"; while the biggest cup assumes the title of "large".
Previously, a large coffee seemed extravagant, but the presence of the new outsized option makes it seem less so. And then there's the name, "regular". Before you know it, you've coughed up the extra money for more coffee than you knew you wanted.
Yes, you've been upsized.
That might seem like a dirty trick, but it's standard fare at cafes these days, at least among the big franchises. It's taking advantage of a well-known mental quirk that afflicts us all. It's known in the psychology literature as "framing" - how a choice is presented affects the decision you reach. In this case, we naturally gravitate towards the middle ground, much the same as the centre lane of a three-lane highway attracts the most traffic.
It's not necessarily a bad thing - choosing a larger coffee than you would have otherwise done - although it could make you fatter or up your caffeine intake beyond what you'd ideally want.
And it's not to say there's a coterie of evil marketing geniuses cooking up schemes to trick us into buying stuff we don't need. For one, they rarely work, the associate professor of marketing at Melbourne Business School, Mark Ritson, says.
"The fundamental purpose of marketing is finding out what people want and give it to them," Ritson says. "That's how you make heaps of money."
Unfortunately, we don't need any help spending money on the wrong stuff. We are very good at making purchasing decisions that don't necessarily maximise our happiness. Understanding our mental foibles can help us spend money better. Here are a few things you fall for, whether you know it or not.
1. You think the more you buy, the happier you will be
The problem is that we all get used to things so quickly: about as long as it takes for that special new-car smell to disappear (although that has yet to be proven scientifically). Lashing out on all your heart could desire come bonus day, or after a bumper tax refund, is an inefficient way to spend, despite the urge to do so.
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology experiment demonstrates why. Researchers had two groups of people given massages. The first bunch got three minutes straight; the second got an 80-second rub, followed by a 20-second break, and then another 80 seconds. Despite the latter group getting 20 seconds less, they reported they enjoyed it more and indicated they would be willing to pay twice as much as the first group. A break in between reinvigorated their capacity to enjoy.
SOLUTION: Given that we become progressively less enamoured with our purchases, spreading them out over a period of time makes more sense. So instead of buying the new set of golf clubs and the new bike in one go, buy one, enjoy it for a few months, and then rekindle the same thrill with the bicycle.
2. You struggle with too much choice
This is one for the internet age. Our options used to be limited to what the local few shops offered. There was a time when stores acted as a curator of consumables - they put in what they thought you would like. Thanks to online shopping, we can now shop anywhere in the world, and buy just about anything, at the click of a button. But what to choose?
Let's say you want to buy a new point-and-shoot camera for an upcoming holiday. Amid the bewildering array of products, beware ''comparison shopping''. This is where you get caught up with endlessly researching the different products on offer. You focus way too much on the nitty gritty of what separates this Canon from that Nikon. But will it really make a difference to how much you enjoy taking pictures of your family frolicking on the beach this summer? No.
SOLUTION Jot down a quick list of what is most important for your purchase. It might be: price, size and picture quality, in that order. That will keep you on the straight and narrow once it comes time to log on. And ask your friends what cameras they have and what they like about them.
3. You don't know what you like
Neuroscientists have shown that we are lied to by our own brains. Take wine. Taste tests are commonly undertaken ''blind'', that is, the tasters are either blindfolded or the bottle is wrapped in a brown paper bag. This practice recognises our propensity to judge a drop by its cover. But why do we do it? Are we really all such shallow snobs? In search of an answer, the experts wired up the brains of a bunch of human guinea pigs. They were offered a range of five wines that they were told cost $5, $10, $25, $45 and $90. The sting was that the $10 and $90 bottles were identical, as were the $5 and $45 wines. The tasters said they liked the $90 bottle much better than the (identical) $10 one and preferred the $45 plonk over the $5 one.
The researchers' monitoring equipment reported more activity in the relevant part of the brain when the subjects drank the more expensive versions of the same wine. They actually were enjoying it more.
SOLUTION You could demand that your wine seller charges you twice as much for a bottle on the grounds that you will enjoy it more, but that is silly. Accept that most drinking and eating is a wider experiential act - who you are with and where you are matters and, yes, how much you pay.
4. You are a sucker for the credit card
That is because spending on your plastic anaesthetises the brain against the pain of payment, says George Loewenstein, a neuro-economist at Carnegie Mellon University in the US.
Researchers at MIT set up a real silent auction for baseball cards. Half the bidders were told it was cash only, the others credit card only. The latter bunch bid twice as much as the former.
The dilemma of whether to buy now and pay later, or wait and save and buy later, activates two different parts of your brain - one the emotional part (gimme, gimme, gimme!) and the other the rational part.
When we buy things now that we can't afford, that's a win for the impulsive section of the brain, and credit cards are a prime cheerleader.
SOLUTION There are valid reasons to use a credit card: it can help manage your cash flow when paying for bills and essentials, and so forth. But make a pledge that you won't use it for luxury items - the so-called ''discretionary'' goods such as clothes you don't necessarily need but would like. (And rewards points are rarely worth it.) You can get Visa debit cards now as well, so no excuse for using the credit card when you are shopping online or over the phone. Oh, and try to pay your card off every month.
5. You use the first number you see as a reference
There is a way retailers can subtly manipulate you by taking advantage of a well-known psychological quirk known as ''anchoring''. It is our proclivity to subliminally latch on to a number and then use it as a - potentially irrelevant - reference point. For example, one researcher asked his subjects first to think of their phone numbers and then to hazard a guess at the number of doctors in London. Those with high telephone numbers overwhelmingly guessed there were more GPs in the city than those with low telephone numbers.
What is less silly is a clothes retailer putting their more expensive garments near the entrance so when you enter the shop, the first shirt you finger costs $150. The average price of $75 for the other tops inside suddenly seems like good value. But is it?
Supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths do something similar by placing up-market, niche products next to their home brand alternatives. It makes them look cheap in comparison.
SOLUTION Shop around to get an idea of the cost of a given product by different brands and locations. Think about how much you have spent on similar items in the past and whether you were happy with them. Then go into any shop with an accurate price anchor - and a limit!