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.


Yep, the media failed once ... (Below threshold)

January 16, 2008 7:12 PM | Posted by Steve : | Reply

Yep, the media failed once again to accurately discern what a journal article actually reported. But, I must say, you're a bit late to this story (in internet time at least. How about this story: http://www.pharmalot.com/2008/01/clinical-trials-exaggerate-antidepressant-benefits/ Nice to have you back (but, I can't say I like the new color scheme - sorry to rain on the parade).

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I am hating your "web desig... (Below threshold)

January 17, 2008 1:39 AM | Posted by mo: | Reply

I am hating your "web design" here. You may need to have a look. I have been staying away assuming you would have fixed your link to the post but so far? nothing.
Love your writing but your site makes my eye balls cross.

Alone's response: please clarify-- I am willing to make any changes necessary for easier readability... what specifically needs to be changed? Do others feel this way?

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That's a good one.Wo... (Below threshold)

January 17, 2008 2:46 PM | Posted by Fargo: | Reply

That's a good one.
Wow. This live comment preview? Bitchin'.
Anyway, I've noticed this with my own clients, in computer services, in that raising my prices some garnered me more business. It certainly wasn't scientific research or anything, but it certainly seems that way.

Also, just yesterday or the day before, I was arguing with someone ,on a forum, who expressed the belief that only expensive wine tastes good, but though it was "disgusting" to drink, cheap wine in cooking is nearly as delicious as expensive wine. Which struck me as absurd, despite having witnessed shopping by price tag often enough. Assuming this person wasn't just screwing with people, the disconnect between wine as beverage and wine as ingredient is an interesting thing, in my mind at least. Like the pointer to the price tag bias is dereferenced, pointing instead to "mmmm, pasta", or some such.

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I don't know what problems ... (Below threshold)

January 17, 2008 9:01 PM | Posted by Jon S.: | Reply

I don't know what problems Mo is having, but for me I see "Continue reading: 'Everything Is A Teachable Moment When You Are A Piece Of Garbage'" at the end of each post instead of "Continue reading: '(the actual post title)'"

Other than that I think the new theme is a definite improvement even if it still needs work.

Having the Google Ads in the middle of posts, especially when they appear between the intro paragraphs of a post and the aforementioned "Continue Reading..." is really annoying, for me, because they're not set apart at all from the rest of the post.

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this could be misperceived ... (Below threshold)

January 17, 2008 9:16 PM | Posted by anonymous: | Reply

this could be misperceived when applying the point to psychiatry. for example...if you have two DIFFERENT wines and drink them side by side, most of the time the $90 bottle indeed tastes better and is better based on other chemical properties of the wine as opposed to simply perception of price...especially if you drink them side by side. Price is but ONE of many factors that contribute to the pleasure induced by the wine. by the same token a name to a psychiatric disorder is but one factor that contributes to the construct of mental illness. It however, is not the only thing that does so. There are unavoidable other factors (most notably neurobiology) that contribute to psychiatric disorders and the subsequent sociocultural sequalae that manifest from them

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I'm not sure if I'm on the ... (Below threshold)

January 19, 2008 3:28 PM | Posted by DrSteve: | Reply

I'm not sure if I'm on the right track with 'anonymous', but in psychiatry one doesn't ususally sit with with two different patients at the same time. One may well, though, sit with one patient and his or her price-tag (diagnosis history).

Back to the article: "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."

Mm, I wonder about this. If I believe a wine is expensive, and it (therefore) tastes expensive, and I (therefore) act accordingly - can't we say that it IS an expensive wine? Sure, under different conditions it could become a cheap wine, but that is then, this is now.

If the patient has an X diagnosis and is treated accordingly, chances are pretty good that a self-fulfilling prophecy will kick in and they'll start behaving like an X. A neurology test that comes up with a different diagnosis is then applying a different price-tag and the process begins again.

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Site design: My suggestion... (Below threshold)

January 20, 2008 4:12 PM | Posted by Steve: | Reply

Site design: My suggestions:

1. You need a border of color on the right and left to "frame" the blog;
2. The spacing between the lines of text is too much. Single space is better.
3. It seems you think that by putting the google ads in the middle more people will click on them. Honestly, I never click on google ads. All this talk about people making $10,000 a month seems unlikely to me.

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I've noticed this recently ... (Below threshold)

February 6, 2008 12:58 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I've noticed this recently at my local Cub Foods.

I buy Perrier water. Yes, I'm middle class, and the fact that it's zero calories and doesn't have the taste of fish like a lot of tap water is a big benefit. Anyway, it used to cost $1.39 a bottle just a few short weeks ago. Then everyone started noticing the economy and prices started going up. So what does the sign say now? "PRICE CUT: $1.69. Save $1.00." So they jack up the price by $0.30 a bottle, but they try to make the inattentive think they're getting a great deal because they say every bottle is on sale for $1.00 off. Right. Same thing with the Vitamin Water, and a host of other goods out there. It's a great tactic for making money, if you're an asshole, because we intuitively know (as you indicate) that this will work. But consumers really need to keep an eye open.

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so where do the factors tha... (Below threshold)

July 21, 2011 1:22 AM | Posted by Alexey Conrad: | Reply

so where do the factors that affect sensory perception come from? is it the wider culture? is there some innate component? can a person effectively reprogram themselves to think the opposite?
what's the truth of it all?
im sorry if that's alot, im a just an idiot student so i ask stupid questions. Keep up the awesome work Doc!

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Also, it may be possible th... (Below threshold)

July 26, 2014 4:22 PM | Posted by Rivka: | Reply

Also, it may be possible that the persons tasting the wine could have SAID the more expensive wine tasted better because they thought they'd appear like fools if they enjoyed a $5 dollar wine as much as a $90 dollar wine.

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Good point, and I like your... (Below threshold)

July 27, 2014 1:52 AM | Posted, in reply to Rivka's comment, by johnnycoconut: | Reply

Good point, and I like your use of the word "also."

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