Want To Make Your Wine Taste Better? Charge More.

New brain scans confirm that people actually enjoy the same wine more if they think it’s more expensive, say researchers from California Institute of Technology and Stanford University.

We propose that marketing actions, such as changes in the price of a product, can affect neural representations of experienced pleasantness. We tested this hypothesis by scanning human subjects using functional MRI while they tasted wines that, contrary to reality, they believed to be different and sold at different prices. Our results show that increasing the price of a wine increases subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks.

So, rather than just rationalizing your extra expense, it’s possible that you are actually enjoying the wine more just because it was expensive.

“The lesson is a very deep one, not only about marketing but about the human experience,” said Rangel, an associate professor of economics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “This study shows that the expectations that we bring to the experience affect the experience itself.”

If only there was a way to convince yourself you were drinking expensive, amazing wine without actually paying more for it… maybe that’s why everyone loves Costco so much?

Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness (abstract) [PNAS]
Brain Scans Reveal Secret to Tastier Wine: Jack Up the Prices [Bloomberg]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Lin-Z [linguist on duty] says:

    I bought expensive champagne for New Year’s but I (and my friends) thought it was awful all the same. I guess there are always exceptions.

  2. nursetim says:

    If they really wanted to test the limits of their research, they should of tried Boone’s Farm in the expiriment.

  3. getjustin says:

    @Lin-Z: I had Dom a few years back and was sorely disappointed. I don’t know what I expected, but for $125 a bottle, I expected something a good bit better than that crap.

  4. Skeptic says:

    So, rather than just rationalizing your extra expense, it’s possible that you are actually enjoying the wine more just because it was expensive.

    This just shows that rationalization goes deep.

  5. KarmaChameleon says:

    Some of the best wine I’ve ever had was Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s. That stuff’s awesome.

  6. teh says:

    I remember that study. You got paid $5 to drink wine and tell them how it tasted (while having your brain scanned).

  7. samurailynn says:

    I tried to sign up for a study like that, but they kept saying they’d have someone call me back to answer the pre-qualifier questions. I was pissed that I didn’t get to do it. I mean, who doesn’t want to get paid to drink? (And, if I remember correctly, the study I was trying to sign up for paid something like $50 per person.)

  8. Bay State Darren says:

    This is why I love beer, amongst many, many reasons.

  9. 92BuickLeSabre says:

    @KarmaChameleon: But there the “coolness” factor isn’t in the price, it’s in the name and brand. I’m not implying that you don’t actually like it – I do too. But arguably the same types of “special status” markers that we experience neurologically with expensive wine could also be triggered with Two-Buck.

    It does remind me of the 20/20 special where a group of people all swore that Grey Goose was their favorite vodka, but in a blind taste test it tested the worst (straight), and no one could differentiate Smirnoff from more expensive vodkas in a cocktail.

  10. KarmaChameleon says:

    @92BuickLeSabre: That’s true. Status is a weird thing. I’m reminded of an article a while back that talked about how Costco’s become a status symbol among rich people.

    Maybe I’m just wired to be cheap, because it’s rare that I find an expensive booze that I like. The one time I had Grey Goose, I made faces like a 5 year old being force-fed brussel sprouts.

  11. GearheadGeek says:

    More evidence that I’m perverse… I enjoy finding a nice bottle of wine that’s less then $15. Re: expensive vodka… well, the expensive stuff is extra-pure, so it’s even better for disinfecting a wound than cheap vodka is. As for drinking, it tastes like the mixer. Feh.

  12. CumaeanSibyl says:

    @Bay State Darren: I bet the same thing applies to beer, though, or really any food/drink product.

    @Lin-Z: Oh, sure, some expensive wines are just shit. I’ve had them. What the study’s saying is that if you had paid less for the same champagne, you would have thought it was worse.

    It’s not about whether cheap wines are sometimes better than good wines. It’s about how perception can change our enjoyment of the exact same wine.

  13. DrGirlfriend says:

    I’m not surprised. I think there are many people who equate wine quality and price. The pricier, the better it must be.

  14. UpsetPanda says:

    I think when it comes to expensive things, sometimes when you buy them there was so much of an investment, it seems you have to strive to find more things to enjoy about it.

    I hate my LG Chocolate. It was expensive at the time (November) but was comparable to the other phones at the store (aside from the craptastic free phones). I got it, found out I hated it, but this was after the 30-day guarantee. Now I find that I kind of do like the sliding feature, and who cares if it doesn’t work so well when I wear gloves…

  15. tdogg241 says:

    If you’re paying more than $15 for a bottle of wine, you’re being had. I’ve had $6 wines that tasted better than $40 wines.

    Hard alcohol is a completely different story, IMO. Whisky especially.

  16. theblackdog says:

    @GearheadGeek: That’s not perverse, more often than not Consumer Reports will report that the best wines in their testing are about $10

  17. madanthony says:

    There’s a book called mindless eating, written by a guy who studies of eating habits. The university he works for runs a resturant that they use for testing the impact of changes to things like portion size on people’s eating habits.

    One of their studies was similar to this – they took bottles of two buck chuck and relabeled them. They told half the people it was a new wine from South Dakota, and the other half that it was a new wine from California. Not only did the people who got the “California” wine think it tasted better than the people who got the “South Dakota” wine, the Cali wine people reported they enjoyed their meal and overall experience more.

    People are easily persuaded by things they don’t realize impact them.

  18. astrochimp says:

    Not only can you convince people it’s good, you can convince (auction house) Christie’s own wine-testers that Thomas Jefferson once owned the bottle of wine you have for sale (and that it tastes damn fine) with a fancy glass engraver and a high asking price.

  19. smitty1123 says:

    Yellowtail. $7. Good enough for me.

  20. allthatsevil says:

    I’m currently drinking wine from a 1.5 liter bottle that I paid $5.87 for, and it’s one of the best wines I’ve tasted in recent memory. After trying it last week, I went back for more and ended up buying the last two bottles available – apparently I’m not the only one who likes it.

    While I don’t care how much a bottle of wine costs, if I’m spending a lot on it, it better taste good. However, I won’t assume that it’s good, just because it’s expensive. But maybe I’m more honest with myself than most people.

  21. ARP says:

    For me there’s a law of diminishing returns. Really cheap wine is bad (don’t like two buck chuck or yellowtale). My sweet spot is $10-$15 (McWilliams, Coppola, etc.). After that, it sort of flat-lines as far as improvement. But based on this study, perhaps I’m even gullible even at my level.

  22. brainologist says:

    This is just another example of a very expensive brain scan study that didn’t provide any more answers than just asking participants to drink wine and check a box on a piece of paper.

    Which wine tastes better? Check one:
    [ ] Expensive
    [ ] Cheap

    I’m appalled by how some researchers insist on asking extremely mundane questions and spicing up the results with brain scan pictures. It’s a huge waste of federal grant money (aka your tax dollars). Did we learn anything new from the brain scan part of the study? Hardly. It’s been long established that expected reward is encoded in the orbitofrontal cortex. That’s why people with damage to that part of the brain have serious trouble making decisions.

    There’s a growing field of “neuromarketing” out there — and buyer beware: it’s largely comprised of schlock like this.

    For an interesting empirical study on how even mentioning the brain in a psychological study can make it more “believable” see Weisberg et al. in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

  23. slipknotshaw36 says:

    While the topic of alcohol quality seems to have come up, I have to say that I’ve noticed that a few brands (most notably Sauza) have pretty expensive types that are much smoother, with a much better taste. No real content here, just saying that I sure love me some tequila.

  24. glass says:

    A great example of this is grey goose. it was invented by a guy in new york, who realized he could make a ton of money by making a cheap vodka and charging a lot for it. he decided to make it in france since theres a perceived value in products coming from france already imbedded in the american psyche.

    he made it more expensive so that there would be an increased perceived value, and it worked. people rave about how great it is (honestly, i think its good vodka, but overpriced).

    personally i prefer ketel one, at two thirds the price.

    check out the grey goose wiki; its actually interesting.

  25. Whinemaker says:

    I’m a winemaker. Just a bit of trivia – and one of my favorite stories is that of Pres. Eisenhower – at formal dinners, he would have the staff pour him very expensive wines from the White House cellars. They would then pour much less expensive wines into the empty (expensive) bottles, and that was what was served to the guests …

  26. odoketa says:

    This is the trouble with having a cellar – our local doesn’t put the prices on the bottles, and when we drink the stuff some months or years later, we’ve no idea how much it cost. Obviously we should tag them all with really high prices before racking them.

    It’s worth noting the times article on this, at least, suggested a trained palette wasn’t susceptible to the price equals quality trick.

  27. lemur says:

    @brainologist: You misunderstood the aim of the study.

    (In the following keep in mind that the expensive wine and cheap wine are really the same wine just marked with different prices.)

    1. Asking people how they enjoyed the wine is very much subject to the following rationalization: some subjects who actually enjoyed a cheap and expensive wine just the same will report that they enjoyed the expensive wine more. The experience was the same but the report is different.

    2. Scanning the brain bypasses people who adjust their report based on expectations. The study here does not prove that some areas of the brain are linked to enjoyment but relies on the fact that such proof has already been established. They use that in their study to argue that our experience of events is colored by our expectations. In this study, they’ve been able to show that in general subjects generally do really enjoy more the more expensive wine. The way to ensure that the experience was really different was to perform a brain scan. Relying merely on verbal reports sends you back to number 1 above.

    In other words, you have two chains of events:

    cheap wine on taste buds -> registering -> report
    expensive wine on taste buds -> registering -> report

    We know that “cheap wine on taste buds” and “expensive wine on taste buds” should produce the same physical reaction because it is the same wine. So if there is a difference in the reported enjoyment of both cases is the difference only in the report or at the time the brain registers the experience? If you just ask people, you can’t tell where the difference originates. If you scan, you can tell whether or not there is a difference in how the brain registers the experience. The researchers here claim to have shown there is a difference at the time the brain registers the experience.

  28. disavow says:

    The best wine I’ve had is Adam Puchta Jazz Berry, $12.99 per bottle, from exotic Hermann, Missouri.

  29. bbbici says:

    There is a law of diminishing returns in everything… wine, cars, haircuts, etc.

    There is a big difference in a $25 wine versus a $10 wine.

    Beyond, say $25 for a bottle of wine you have to have a really refined palate to be able to say WOW!

    Yeah, a $200 Sassicaia is going to be a little bit “better” than a lesser vintage, but if you are rich, what else are you going to spend all that money on?

    I always laugh at people who order expensive wines when they are already drunk and their palates numbed.

  30. brent_w says:

    I wonder how comprehensive their test was, because I suspect its much more complicated than that.

    There are people of the personality type where they feel expensive
    means good and will relish expensive garbage just because they are
    convinced that its price is corollary to its value.

    But there are also people of the personality type whom suspect and
    loathe high priced things to the point which they belive anything pricy
    must be overpriced and a scam, these people I suspect would be more
    likely to say an expensive wine tastes worse.

  31. danger says:

    When you pay more for something you think it has greater value: This is known as the “Chivas Regal effect” and is often used when describing why an Ivy league college is better than a cheaper college.

  32. brainologist says:

    @lemur: I did understand the aim of the study, and if you’ll look further you’ll find the results aren’t actually any more informative than my pencil-paper example. With all due respect, I think you’re placing a bit too much faith in the supposition that the brain scans are revealing something more “real” than a self-report. (While I acknowledge that in many cases fMRI may give us this advantage, the present study does not avoid the self-report confound you describe.)

    Subjects in this study were asked to rate wines based on pleasantness and taste. It would be naive to assume they weren’t considering their response while tasting the wine (in fact, they were supposed to be). So the modulation of mOFC seen in response to different levels of enjoyment is not independent of the eventual response that the subjects make. In fact, the authors rely on the correlation (e.g. Fig. 3) as a major focus of the paper.

    So, whereas I agree that point (1) might me true; your point (2) is completely off the mark. Scanning the brain doesn’t “bypass” rationalizers, it just reflects that everyone’s neural activity predictably corresponds to his or her subsequent rating response.

    Ultimately, what we’ve seen is that people’s report of enjoyment corresponds to the neural activity we suppose underlies that enjoyment. Thus, the brain scans just provide converging evidence that the behavioral measure (i.e. the self-report) is an accurate measure of underlying enjoyment. QED all we needed was a pencil and paper.

  33. Aw hell no. I much prefer discovering a good wine that’s also reasonably priced ($15-20). Money does not necessarily guarantee quality in wine. And frankly, unless we’re having a dinner party or something, a bottle of Yellow Tail for sipping at home, just me and my husband, is just fine!

  34. riverstyxxx says:

    There’s an episode of Penn and Teller called “The Best”. Main point they were trying to make is that The best is what works best for you, not necessarily the cheapest or even the most expensive.
    We have this huge 99 cents store chain in our area that sells everything under the sun for a buck, including wine. He bought two random bottles and according to him, they were actually pretty damn good.

    So, bottom line is that you should go with your taste preference and leave the financial cost as secondary.