Researchers at the California Institute of Technology hypothesized that marketing factors, such as the price of a product, could have an impact on experiential perceptions such as pleasantness. And they put the idea to the test with wine.
In the study, recently published by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers told participants that they would be tasting five different Cabernet Sauvignons. Using functional MRI, the researchers measured neural indicators of pleasantness which showed that subjects experienced higher levels of “flavor pleasantness” when they were told that wines were more expensive.
In reality, the subjects were given only three different Cabernets. Two of them were presented twice, at different price levels. A $90 bottle of wine was presented at both its original price and at a $10 price level, and a $5 wine was presented at its original price and a $45 price level.
In both cases, the testers’ brains showed higher levels of pleasure at the higher price point than at the lower price point.
The results of this test don’t surprise me at all. I know when I’m served a glass of wine that I know is more expensive there is a heightened level of excitement—even before I taste the wine! I feel as though I’m taking part in something special, but that doesn’t mean that the wine really tastes any better than a less expensive bottle.
This is one of the reasons “professional tasting” is done blind. It’s hard to put aside your perceptions about a wine and judge it in an unbiased way.
I also find it interesting because I think that people are often afraid to look stupid by saying an expensive wine tastes bad, or a cheap wine tastes good. What’s great about this study is that it eliminated those social factors and measured brain activity.
But those social factors need to change. Let go, my friends. Cheap is OK. Quality is what matters—and you don’t always have to pay a lot to get good quality.
I’d like to see a follow up study where they present participants with a bill for the wine, then see if levels of pleasure go up when the bill is higher versus lower.
Here’s my advice: Buy a high-quality, low-price wine but tell your friends that it’s a bit more expensive when you serve it. Or, do a blind tasting where you serve them the same wine three times at three different price levels. It’s sure to be entertaining.