January 16, 2008

Raising Wine Prices Makes Wine Taste Better

Turns out the Associated Press doesn't read journal articles, either.

The story is that two identical wines, priced differently, are perceived to taste better or worse depending on price.

The study took the same wine poured into two glasses, labeled one $5 and the other $90, and (the AP reports,) the subjects thought the $90 wine tasted better.

Which isn't exactly what happened-- I'll get to that later.  Before I read the study itself, my first thought was, "why is this surprising?"  Let's take this conclusion at face value-- what does it actually mean?   The assumption is that taste shouldn't be affected by something external, like price.

That's wrong: taste isn't objective, any more than being hot is objective.  Taste is legitimately affected by price, because that's a variable in the perception of pleasure.

Which is hotter: a hot girl I tell you is 25, or the same hot girl I tell you is 35, but is actually 25?  Her hottness clearly has a variable related to age (sorry ladies) that isn't evident in the physical object (it's the same girl.)

This isn't semantics.  That the wine tasted better is not deceptive-- it actually tastes better.   It's real, not illusion, in exactly the same way that meeting a guy you think is an arms dealer/nightclub owner makes him taste better (NO JOKES).  The point isn't that you were lied to; the point is that information affects "taste"= pleasure.

It's Cypher, eating the steak and drinking the wine, knowing it isn't real, yet it still "tastes" delicious.  (Spoiler: he dies.)

This experiment isn't scientific because it does not measure what it claims to measure-- the influence of price on the (not actually) objective parameter "taste."  An objective study would have been asking the subjects to identify which wines were the same, and to determine if price differentials affected that ability.


Let's look at the article more closely.  Sorry-- let's just actually read it.

Right off the bat: it's not about wine. The premise of the study is in paragraph 1 (in which the word "wine" does not appear):

A basic assumption in economics is that the experienced pleasantness (EP) from consuming a good depends only on its intrinsic properties and on the state of the individual...

In opposition to this view, a sizable number of marketing actions attempt to influence EP by changing properties of commodities, such as prices, that are unrelated to their intrinsic qualities or to the consumer’s state.

The article isn't about taste, but the interaction between a sensory experience and the expectation of that experience; specifically, that Experienced Pleasantness (through the brain region which handles it) is affected by variables that are not contained in the object of pleasure, but have in the past been informative about the potential for pleasure.  In this case, price.

These variables are not contained in the object, they come from you and placed are placed on the object. 

The authors are clear about what they did (not) find:

Importantly, we did not find evidence for an effect of prices on areas of the primary taste areas such as the  insula cortex...

Another way of saying this is that naming something affects your perception of it.  The authors cite a study in which labeling the identical odor as either "cheddar cheese" or "body odor" affected the perception of pleasantness.  A price is also a name, of sorts, in so far as all names are merely signs which convey a message.  ("Tammy" vs. "Tami").

Naming something, labeling something, is power.  Not powerful-- power.  The price is a label.  What people are likely upset about is, "so, marketers could simply tell you lies about it, and you'll think it's better than it is!" and if you said that, you're missing my point: it isn't better than it "is."  It isn't anything.  It's just a stupid drink.

Or, you may lament, "so advertisers can tell us may actually affect our perception of pleasure by telling us it is better!  That's unfair!"  Unfair is not the right word.  It's surreptitious.  But it may actually enhance your pleasure.  "But they're taking my money on false pretenses."  Yes, that's another issue-- how much you're willing to pay for your "illusion" of pleasure.  Have you seen a Julia Roberts movie?

We might all have what the Matrix referred to as "residual self image," and I'm sure it's great, but ultimately you are only what you did (and thought.)  You're not a coward until you act like one, and even then there's always tomorrow when you can be something else.

There's a human bias that things have a nature and a value independent of our perception, and this is in some ways accurate; but let me soften my position and simply say that we can strongly alter this simply by naming it.  Change perceptions, relationships-- how you interact with it, how you view it.

I hardly need to reiterate that this is precisely what psychiatric diagnoses are about.