The middle ground: How businesses should deal with our love of the centre stage

Do you tend to select wine from the middle of the list? Order a meal that is neither too expensive nor too cheap? Donate amounts that are somewhere between the highest and lowest?

As consumers we most typically avoid extremes when selecting from a list of items, preferring instead to cluster around the middle. Some recent research reported in Research Digest has added additional scientific weight to this behaviour, known as “Centre Stage Effect”.

In the most recent study, researchers Paul Rodway, Astrid Schepman, and Jordana Lambert found a preference for the middle across both horizontal (moving left to right) and vertical (top to bottom) displays. From this you can take two immediate actions for your website and/or printed collateral such as menus or product brochures.

1. Be smart about the sequence of items

Knowing that most people will select from the middle rather than first or last items, consider how you position items with the best margin. Listing your highest margin wine as the cheapest will mean you are probably leaving money on the table because most customers will avoid the wine for fear of being thought a cheap skate. Likewise, your most expensive wine should not necessarily be the one with greatest margin because volume will be low.

Contrast a wine list on the left (image 1), which does not use price sequencing to influence purchase, and image 2 on the right, which does. Image 2 takes better advantage of the Centre Stage Effect.

2. Be smart about how you style the display of items

You have a choice to work with or against the Centre Stage Effect according to your business objectives. If it is to your advantage to encourage the customer to avoid extremes, style the middle of your list to capture visual attention. If, however, you want to counteract the Effect, you will need to visually style the list to drag attention away from the middle.


Image 1 (left) and image 2 (right).

Image 3 provides additional visual cues to persuade the customer’s choice for the middle option, whereas image 4 pulls attention away from the centre by styling the left-most laptop differently to the others.


Image 3: Visual emphasis given to middle option  


Image 4: Item on left distinguished through styling

With knowledge of the Center Stage Effect you can make deliberate choices about how you influence your customers, making it work in your favour.

With that, I’ll exit stage left.

Research cited taken from Rodway, P., Schepman, A., and Lambert, J. (2012). Preferring the One in the Middle: Further Evidence for the Centre-stage Effect. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26 (2), 215-222 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1812 cited in  

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues. Bri is a presenter, consultant and author who you can find out more about at, [email protected] or by following @peoplepatterns. Bri’s book, “22 Minutes to a Better Business“, about how behavioural economics can help you tackle everyday business issues, is available through the Blurb bookstore.


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