The higher the price, the more we like it
Researchers use wine tasting to show how marketing tactics
can trick the brain to find more enjoyment in costlier products.
By Denise Gellene, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
January 15, 2008
When it comes to wine tasting, pleasure is in the price.
Using brain scanners to monitor the minds of wine drinkers, scientists found
that people given two identical red wines got more pleasure from tasting the one
they were told cost more.
The study, reported Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
demonstrated for the first time how marketing tactics -- such as raising the
price of a product -- can cause the brain to play tricks on itself.
Researchers led by Antonio Rangel, associate professor of economics at Caltech,
asked 20 volunteers to rank their enjoyment of small sips of five differently
priced Cabernet Sauvignon wines while a functional MRI machine monitored the
brain response. Volunteers also were asked to rate the flavor intensity of the
Unbeknown to volunteers, two sets of wine samples were identical: the $5 and $45
wines ($5 actual price) and the $10 and $90 wines ($90 actual price). The fifth
wine was identified by its actual $35 price.
Volunteers were asked to rank the pleasantness of the wines. They liked the
$90 wine best and the $5 wine least.
[This chart shows that people ranked taste of a $45 wine higher than the same
wine priced at $5, and the same for a different wine marked $90 and $10.
(Credit: CalTech, Stanford)]
Brain scans showed that activity in the part of the brain that detects
pleasure also moved in lock step with price. The medial orbital prefrontal
cortex, which is located behind the eyes, showed the greatest activity when
volunteers drank the wine marked $90 and the least activity when they sipped the
wine priced at $5.
[This graph shows the activity in the brain's pleasure center; there's more
activity with wine subjects think costs $90 a bottle (top line) than the same
wine priced at $10. The arrow shows the moment when the subjects started tasting
the wine. (Credit: CalTech, Stanford)]
Prices had no effect on flavor intensity ratings. Volunteers said the $5 and
$45 wines and the $10 and $90 wines were identically sweet.
Rangel said the findings showed that pleasantness of consuming a product relied
not only on the product's intrinsic properties, such as flavor in the case of
wine, but also on certain beliefs, such as the notion that expensive wines will
probably taste better, he said. By manipulating prices "we can change how wine
tastes without changing the wine," Rangel said. "It's mind-blowing."
Two weeks after the experiment, volunteers were asked to rate the wines in the
absence of price data. They liked the wines originally marked $5 and $45 best
and the samples labeled $10 and $90 second best.
George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon
University in Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the study, said the findings
supported research on consumer behavior.
"People pay high prices for water from Italy, and we know that water tastes
about the same wherever it comes from," he said. "Price is one of the many
attributes that people pay attention to, and it affects how we perceive things
as a consumer."
First Order Intelligence detects the intrinsic
factors in this wine tasting test; these are the actual taste experiences such
as the sweetness and dryness of the wine. Second Order Intelligence judges the
pleasantness of the wine based on extrinsic factors like price and packaging
which have nothing to do with the intrinsic taste of the wine. The extrinsic
factors are used to construct our 'story' about the wine.
What's going on when we judge an identical wine to have a more pleasant taste
when the difference is NOT in our experience (intrinsic factors) of the wine but
in our 'story' (extrinsic factors) about the wine - specifically its price?
Does our perception (or our 'story' or 'belief' or 'judgment' about the wine)
actually alter the wine?
Does our judgment about the wine conform to extrinsic social expectations that
'more expensive is better' rather then to the intrinsic facts of the wine?
To what extent do other judgments we make have no basis in intrinsic experience?
To what extent do people now use marketing instead of their intrinsic experience
as the basis of their judgments?
Just how much might consumers who judge a wine by its price instead of its
actual taste be willing to pay?