I used to be a wine snob, convinced that I could only enjoy bottles from obscure French vineyards. But then I started reading about numerous experiments involving the perception of wine, all of which emphasized the importance of expectation in shaping our perceptions. In other words, the reason I enjoyed my fancy wines isn't because they tasted better — it's because I expected them to taste better.
Consider this recent study by scientists at Cal-Tech and Stanford. Their experiment was organized like a wine tasting. Twenty people sampled five Cabernet Sauvignons that were distinguished solely by their retail price, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the people were told that all five wines were different, the scientists weren't telling the truth: there were only three different wines. This meant that the same wines would often reappear, but with different price labels. For example, the first wine offered during the tasting — it was a cheap bottle of Californian Cabernet — was labeled both as a $5 wine (its actual retail price) and as a $45 dollar wine, a 900 percent markup. All of the red wines were sipped inside an fMRI machine.
Not surprisingly, the subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better. They preferred the $90 bottle to the $10 bottle, and thought the $45 Cabernet was far superior to the $5 plonk. By conducting the wine tasting inside an fMRI machine — the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes — the scientists could see how the brains of the subjects responded to the different wines. While a variety of brain regions were activated during the experiment, only one brain region seemed to respond to the price of the wine, rather than the wine itself: the prefrontal cortex. In general, more expensive wines made parts of the prefrontal cortex more excited. The scientists argue that the activity of this brain region shifted the preferences of the wine tasters, so that the $90 Cabernet seemed to taste better than the $35 Cabernet, even though they were actually the same wine.
Of course, the wine preferences of the subjects were clearly nonsensical. Instead of acting like rational agents — getting the most utility for the lowest possible price — they were choosing to spend more money for an identical product. When the scientists repeated the experiment with members of the Stanford University wine club, they got the same results. In a blind tasting, these "semi-experts" were also misled by the made-up price tag.
These experiments suggest that, in many circumstances, we could make better consumer decisions by knowing less about the product we are buying. When we walk into a store, we are besieged by information. Even purchases that seem simple can quickly turn into a cognitive quagmire. Look, for example, at the jam aisle. A glance at the shelves can inspire a whole range of questions. Should we buy the smooth textured strawberry jam or the one with less sugar? Does the more expensive jam taste better? What about organic jam? (The typical supermarket contains more than 200 varieties of jam and jelly.) Rational models of decision-making suggest that the way to find the best product is to take all of this information into account, to carefully analyze the different brands on display. But this method can backfire. When we spend too much time thinking in the supermarket, we can trick ourselves into choosing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. That's why the best critics, from Consumer Reports to Robert Parker, always insist on blind comparisons. They want to avoid the deceptive thoughts that corrupt their decisions. The prefrontal cortex isn't good at picking out jams or energy drinks or bottles of wine. Such decisions are like a golf swing: they are best done with our emotional brain, which generates its verdict automatically.
This "irrational" approach to shopping can save us lots of money. After Rangel and his colleagues finished their brain imaging experiment, 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 prefrontal cortex, the cheapest wine got the highest ratings. It wasn't fancy, but it tasted the best.
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Jonah Lehrer is editor-at-large for Seed magazine and the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide. A graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes Scholar, Lehrer has worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and writes a highly regarded blog, The Frontal Cortex.
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Books mentioned in this post
Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide