January 15, 2008

Expensive Wine Tastes Better

A joint study by the Stanford Business School and Cal-Tech reveals that consumers tasting wine respond with pleasure to it. No surprise there! But both schools brought something from their respective areas of expertise and the results of the study raised my eyebrow.

Cal-Tech objectively measured this pleasure by noting that blood and oxygen are sent to a particular location within the brain while the wine is being tasted. Some wines produced more blood and oxygen flow than others. Again, this is not particularly surprising.

Now, the B-school researchers wanted to see if the more expensive wine is really better than the cheap stuff. And, to the joy of winemakers and salespeople everywhere, the pricier wines produced more of this physiological response that indicates more intense pleasure.

Bear in mind that it's not certain that the physiological reaction in the brain necessarily connotes pleasure with the wine or some other aspect of the experience. But it's probably a very good assumption. Pain can be objectively measured and more objectively administered, and studies involving mild to moderate pain stimulation produce similar kinds of objectively-observable brain phenomena.

Now, here's the rub. Which has to make the B-school guys very, very happy indeed. It was the same wine -- the researchers simply told the test subjects that it was more expensive than the last one. The greater pleasure came from the subject knowing that the wine was more expensive. Talk about a coup for the marketing majors!

Don't be too quick to sneer at the wine snobs, though. A similar kind of "price placebo" was observed in beer, movies, and energy drinks. Most interestingly, as the apparent price of an energy drink increased, so too did the test subjects' ability to solve puzzles. Since it was the same energy drink all along, this is a purely psychological phenomenon. That means that in addition to the fairly simple "expensive-is-better" response, the mere belief that the sports drink has a more potent effect on the brain is enough to unlock mental abilities that were really there all along.

What's more, this mere belief is only implied, since the only thing the subject is told is that the drink is more expensive. The subject infers from price information that the drink is more potent, even though that relationship is not logically a necessary truth. So a mere belief, founded on an inference, creates a placebo effect with measurable consequences in mental ability.

In further defense of the wine snobs, the amount of increased pleasure seemed to diminish when the first wine sampled was "priced" somewhere in the mid-range, at about $35 a bottle (which is the price range where the reserve wines from smaller winemakers can be found) as compared to a wine with no price information given at all. This suggests (hints, really) that wine drinkers who frequent the middle range of the price spectrum have levelled their expectations of quality, but they are still susceptible to the "get-what-you-expect" psychological effect (trick?) that seems to affect consumers of high-end products.

That helps explain why, for instance, audiophiles insist their expensive equipment produces better sound. Part of it is defensiveness about their decision to have spent so much money on the equipment in the first place. Part of it is that the more expensive equipment probably is objectively better than basic equipment. But now we know part of it is that spending the money on the pricier goods produces a purely psychological pleasure.

And a friend from the Rationalists of East Tennessee suggests another application -- take a boy playing football for the first time. He is bumped, pushed, shoved, and bruised. He cries and is upset at the rough treatment. Then he is told that tough guys don't cry and real men like to play football because it involves that kind of physical combat. Soon enough, not only does the boy stop crying, but he starts to push and bump back, and he actually likes it when he is tackled, because it means he is in a game against worthy opponents, which is more fun. What was once unpleasant becomes enjoyable purely through the power of psychological manipulation.

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