Think of the tastiest candy you’ve ever eaten. Think of the wrapper it came in, how it was presented, and importantly, the price you paid for it. It turns out, that candy could have tasted even better if you thought it was worth more money. Brain scans of people assessing wines have found that this preference for higher-prices isn’t just some kind of post-hoc rationalization to justify spending. Higher prices can trigger more activity in the brain’s reward centers, meaning your that candy that you bought for $1.00 would have been even sweeter if you thought it was worth a $1.50.
How to value vino
Candy prices are kind of predictable though, and unless a specialty shop is involved, it’s hard to be convinced that one Milky Way bar is all that different from another. Wine, however, is sold under many labels at varying prices, and so it was a great way to test how much prices influence people’s perception of quality. Volunteers then sipped wine through a tube while their brains were scanned in an fMRI so that their reactions to both fictional prices and real wine could be tracked. Unknown to the participants, the wines were identical in each round of sips, and the prices were randomly assigned, ensuring that the wine’s “actual” value was not the main factor in people’s perceptions.
As people sipped, they generally favored what they thought were the more expensive wines. This was true whether they thought they’d be paying for wine or being given it for free, indicating that a concern over their resources was not what made something tasty. People weren’t making the most of their available resources— they were instead enhancing the flavor of the wine with a price-based placebo effect.
Believing it’s better
Placebos are usually discussed in terms of health treatments, but the same underlying concept applies were. If a person thinks a pill will make them healthy, that can be enough to convince their body to recover. In the context of wine prices, the so-called “placebo marketing effect” was found to trigger physiological differences in people’s brains. Sipping pricier versions of a wine lead to more activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex and the ventral striatum, the former being tied to price-comparisons and the latter being involved in reward and motivation systems. As far as these people’s brains were concerned, pricier wine was honestly better.
There are limits to this, of course. Putting a $100 price tag on vinegar isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But for wines, or candies, or anything else that we expect to have variable prices and quality, this can make a difference. It’s something to keep in mind when you make up your mind about a food or experience before you’ve tried it— like a four-year-old who doesn’t want to try a vegetable, you really can convince your brain that something you don’t want will be miserable to have in your mouth.
“So which would you rather have, a new kind of chocolate in a plain wrapper or one in a fancy box?”
“Is it a box I could keep?” asked my third-grader, “because if was going to be thrown away I’d take the smaller wrapper to make less trash.”
After many hypotheticals, I did eventually get her to pick the theoretically pricier chocolate over something cheaper, but the exchange felt like another reason this study was done with adults sipping wine.
Source: Why Expensive Wine Appears To Taste Better, Scienmag