(credit: Sarah Ross/CC)

What do we want? Control!

Control and freedom of choice are important to us, and we are prepared to pay real money for it. But things are not always that simple…

Koen Smets
6 min readAug 4, 2017


‘A la carte’ — a posh French phrase that implies something that is bespoke, something that is tailored to our specific preferences. It means that we can choose. The term stems from the pleasant world of gastronomy, where restaurants often offer a set menu on the one hand, and a wide range of starters, main courses, second courses, desserts and goodness knows what more, on the other hand.

Choice doesn’t come cheap (image: Alpha/CC)

The remarkable observation is that the price of the set menu is almost always a good deal lower than it would cost to order the same courses separately from the general menu. Cynics might argue that this is because the dishes in question are smaller when they are part of the set menu, but I have never seen any evidence to support such claim. It is not the motivation behind the restaurateur’s pricing approach that is really interesting, though. Far more intriguing is the fact that we appear to be willing to pay more for a menu that we assemble ourselves, than for one that has been constructed for us.

Paying for control

We are willing to pay for control. Not just in restaurants,

Such payment is not always made in money. Just this week, the commemoration took place of the mindboggling battle of Passchendaele. One hundred years ago, in the muddy fields around this tiny village, in the span of just a few days, close to half a million soldiers (just try to imagine that number) perished. War is, in essence, about control. The aggressor wants to gain control over the resources, the land, the people of the occupied country. The other side wants to defend their control and regain what was lost already. Hundreds of thousands paid the ultimate price in that battle for control.

One recent political event is very overtly about control. In the referendum around the UK’s membership of the EU, the most prominent slogan of Vote Leave was ‘take back control’.



Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius