Monday, January 14, 2008

The More It Costs, the Better It Tastes

My friends up the road at CalTech have proven that the amount a wine costs shapes your response to the wine. In brief, the more it costs, the better you think it tastes. This theory was tested on 21 volunteers who tasted 5 cabernets 15 times. For the study, a $95 bottle of cab was given a $10 price tag, and a $5 wine was priced at $45. They discovered that the "rewards center" of the brain showed more neural activity when the price stick was higher, even if it was the same wine.

I have long suspected that this was the case. In a culture that tells us every day to spend more on things we can't afford, that only the super-rich (and super-thin) are having real fun, and that it's better to die in debt than to deprive yourself of any of your entitlements to consumer goods during your life, this comes under the "sad but true" news department.

According to the story that appeared in the Australian newspaper, The Age:

The study found that inflating the price of a bottle of wine enhanced a person's experience of drinking it, as shown by the neural activity. Volunteers consistently gave higher ratings to more expensively labelled wines.

"What this study shows is that the brain's rewards centre takes into account subjective beliefs about the quality of the experience," Professor Rangel said.

"If you believe that the experience is better, even though it's the same wine, the rewards centre of the brain encodes it as feeling better."

So, there we have it. Your response to a wine is subjective. One of the things your brain takes into account when making its subjective judgments about a wine is the cost. So I guess there was no point in telling you to try that $12 Zweigelt. Even if it's just as good as an overpriced $45 Pinot Noir, you will still tend to think that the Pinot is better, because of that pesky price tag.

My brain must be wired funny, because I get the biggest tingle in my "rewards center" when I drink great wine and discover it only cost $8. Maybe I need a good electrician.


Anonymous said...

I'm like you -- always looking for "the deal" and I get very excited finding reasonably-priced wines that I love. I tend to be more critical of higher-priced bottles because I expect more, but it seems that I am in the minority!

Velvet Fog said...

I don't know, if your 'reward center' is tingling I wouldn't try and stop it.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the post Dr Debs. I want to say I read a study a while ago that stated similar results. Either that study or another one said that the converse is true as well....the greater the price the greater the dissappointment level if the wine is bad where as the cheaper product or wine yields a lower dissapointment level.

And I would agree with velvet fog - if you "reward center" is tingling - don't mess with it. heehee


Taster B said...

Wow. I read the article too and it sounds like they were presented a series, one at a time which I think makes it difficult to compare objectively. I was just wishing the other night that I could do more side-by-side comparison because tasting one wine at a time is so subjective. It definitely has a lot to do with my mood, and how I'm feeling physically. I can see how expectation has an effect on the experience too: When I know I'm about to have a great wine, I take a deep breath, clear my mind and prepare to be transported. If you associate higher prices with better quality, it's bound to have an effect on your receptiveness to the wine!

Anonymous said...

I'm totally with you. The thrill of finding that hidden treasure that tastes like a wine that's five times the price is great.

The study does seem to confirm general consumer behavior that leads to judging many products by their highly hyped and pricey labels.

But, there were only 20 subjects, and they weren't very experienced wine drinkers.

I'd like to see some variations:

How would experienced wine drinkers, and "professional" tasters perform in a similar study?

How would the brains of "value-driven" wine drinkers (like us) react under similar conditions?

According to the AP story: "On the other hand, when tasters didn't know any price comparisons, they rated the $5 wine as better than any of the others sampled."

Clearly Dr. Debs, we've got to find that $5 wine that tasted better than the $95 one, and see how it tingles the rewards center!

Anonymous said...

I, like mrtaz, think the experience level of the taster is very important. We wine bloggers, who like to think we know what we're talking about at least a bit, may have tasted pricey wines but appreciate inexpensive ones which taste so. For that particular study, novice drinkers may have only had cheaper wines for the most part, so they'll recognize those more. Therefore, they might not enjoy complex wines, which may cost more. But if they're told the cost, that could influence what they think they should think.

Whew. Good thing I'm drinking a 'good deal' right now--the Cristalino Brut, which I know you like, too, Deb. And the other night I found an even better one: the delicious Protocolo from La Mancha for six bucks.

Joe Roberts said...

Sadly, I expect some not-so-wonderful retailers and/or wineries will raise prices based on this (exactly what the industry does NOT need at the moment).

Having said that, we all know that this is already going on to some extent anyway, and this phenomenon has been assumed to happen in other industries for some time now (this just may be the first time that it's been publicized for wine, along with a study linking it to bona-fide neural activity).

Interestingly, in Questions of Taste some of the philosophy articles hint at this phenomenon - in the book one of the essays explores the pleasure we get when thinking about enjoying a wine we perceive as excellent (anticipation is everything! :-)

Dr. Debs said...

Great comments, everybody--and I'm particularly glad no one thinks I have to mess with my rewards center! Seriously, though, Mr. Taz's suggestions on experiment modifications are intriguing. Blind tastings are notoriously tricky, and can fool even the most experienced palates. But I still do wonder if someone with wide knowledge of the variability of wine would be as swayed by a sticker. I would like to think no, but I suspect the answer is yes.

Tempered Woman said...

I think it's important to point out that the individuals experienced a spike in their pleasure centers. They didn't actually report the wine "tasted" better. I can't help but wonder if perhaps the individuals were simply experiencing pleasure because they thought they were being treated to an expensive wine. That would get my heart pumping- great taste or not.
We already know that people physically can respond to a placebo- they can actually get better from sugar pills. The mind is way more powerful in controlling our body than we give it credit. I'd really like to see a match up between self-report and brain response analysis. Do they match up? Us humans are so good at confusing things by overthinking them. Can you say cognitive dissonance?

Joe said...

you can never taste blind too often - a humbling experience

Dr. Debs said...

You raise interesting issues, Tempered Woman. The study is limited in lots of ways, and those you mention are certainly of concern to me. And I agree, Joe, that the blind tasting experience is always an eye opener!

Unknown said...

As a mathematician, engineer, and wine blogger [], I'm not impressed with the CalTech study. 21 "volunteers" sounds bogus to me. Although I have friends that are impressed by fancy labels and high prices, the majority of the people I know [my "22" volunteers] get more excited when they find a really good deal. That's why I like your blog with its QPR's and have incorporated Quality and QPR's in our ratings. Keep up the good work.