SCIENTISTS AT CALTECH and Stanford recently published the results of a peculiar wine tasting. They provided people with cabernet sauvignons at various price points, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the tasters were told that all the wines were different, the scientists were in fact presenting the same wines at different prices.
The subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better, even when they were actually identical to cheaper wines.
The experiment was even more unusual because it was conducted inside a scanner – the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes – that allowed the scientists to see how the subjects’ brains responded to each wine. When subjects were told they were getting a more expensive wine, they observed more activity in a part of the brain known to be involved in our experience of pleasure.
What they saw was the power of expectations. People expect expensive wines to taste better, and then their brains literally make it so. Wine lovers shouldn’t feel singled out: Antonio Rangel, the Caltech neuroeconomist who led the study, insists that he could have used a variety of items to get similar results, from bottled water to modern art.
The article also looks at other experiments…
Baba Shiv, a neuroeconomist at Stanford, supplied people with an “energy” drink containing a potent brew of sugar and caffeine. Some participants paid full price for the drinks, while others were offered a discount. The participants were then asked to solve a series of word puzzles. To Shiv’s surprise, the people who paid discounted prices consistently solved fewer puzzles than the people who paid full price for the drinks, even though the drinks were identical.
“We ran the study again and again, not sure if what we got had happened by chance,” Shiv says. “But every time we ran it we got the same results.”
Why did the cheaper energy drink prove less effective? According to Shiv, a kind of placebo effect is at work. Since we expect cheaper goods to be less effective, they generally are less effective, even if they are identical to more expensive products. This is why brand-name aspirin works better than generic aspirin and why Coke tastes better than cheaper colas, even if most consumers can’t tell the difference in blind taste tests.
“We have these general beliefs about the world – for example, that cheaper products are of lower quality – and they translate into specific expectations about specific products,” said Shiv.
One of the implications of Shiv’s experiment is that it’s possible to make a product more “effective” by increasing its price. A good marketing campaign can have a similar effect, as it instills consumers with lofty expectations about the quality of the product. For instance, Shiv cites research showing that cars made in the same factory, with the same parts, but sold under different brand names (such as Toyota and Geo) receive markedly different reliability ratings from consumers. When we drive a car with a less exalted brand name, we are more likely to notice minor mechanical problems.
Expectations can even play havoc with experts. A few years ago, Frederic Brochet, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bordeaux, conducted a rather mischievous experiment. He invited 54 experienced wine tasters to give their impressions of a red wine and a white wine. Not surprisingly, the experts described the wines with the standard set of adjectives: the red wine was “jammy” and full of “crushed red fruit.” The white wine, meanwhile, tasted of lemon, peaches, and honey. The next day, Brochet invited the wine experts back for another tasting. This time, however, he dyed the white wine with red food coloring, so that it looked as if they were tasting two red wines. The trick worked. The experts described the dyed white wine with the language typically used to describe red wines. The peaches and honey tasted like black currants.
Back to the grapes…
After the researchers finished their brain imaging, they asked the subjects to taste the five different wines again, only this time the scientists didn’t provide any price information. Although the subjects had just listed the $90 wine as the most pleasant, they now completely reversed their preferences. When the tasting was truly blind, when the subjects were no longer biased by their expectations, the cheapest wine got the highest ratings. It wasn’t fancy, but it tasted the best.
Anyone find any of this surprising?