Planning to attend a New Year's Eve party? That got commentator Scott Huler thinking about the economic principles of party planning.
Planning to attend a New Year's Eve party? That got commentator Scott Huler thinking about the economic principles of party planning. - 
Listen To The Story

This year I finally understood the science behind party planning: like a research assistant with lab animals, party hosts control their guests' behavior through food.

I figured this out when I recently attended a party that ran out of food. The party started at 7  and when I arrived at about 8:20, not a bite of food remained. Not chili scrapings or salsa residue; not forgotten pieces of celery near the almost-empty cup of ranch or the broken halves of somebody's last-minute store-bought cookies.


This is an annual party, and the people who attend it agree: this happens every year. So the only conclusion I can reach -- the party runs out of food…on purpose. The host has made a decision to end the party early using behavioral economics: when the food runs out, people leave. I arrived at 8:20 and, foodless, I was gone by 10 to 9. I guarantee you the host of that party had a clean kitchen and was watching a video by 11, which was probably the goal.

Think about it. If you put out enough food to last all night, people stand around nacho wreckage at quarter to 12, carrying on conversations about college girlfriends. That's the party for me, by the way.

I worked a variation of this principle with birdseed at home. No seed? No birds. Totally full bird feeder? Gangs of goldfinches descend on the yard like Hell's Angels. If the seed is lousy, birds will come occasionally until the seed gets moldy. I tinkered with mixes, trying to find the right way to keep enough birds around to entertain me without eating me out of house and home.

Same with parties. You put out enough food -- and food of a certain quality and quantity -- to bring the number of guests you want… and have them stay only as long as you want.

And guests, like my backyard birds, will tell you how well you've calculated. Wake up the next day with a guest still on the couch? You probably did swell. Empty house at 10? You may have miscalibrated, unless that's what you wanted.

As for that annual party I mentioned earlier, I believe I'm going to vote with my wings -- uh, feet. Next year when it rolls around, I think I may stay home and have some birdseed.

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.