Almost everything you need to know about human nature is revealed in this CalTech-Stanford study of wine appreciation:
Twenty people sampled five Cabernet Sauvignons that were distinguished solely by their retail price, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the people were told that all five wines were different, the scientists weren’t telling the truth: there were only three different wines. This meant that the same wines would often reappear, but with different price labels. For example, the first wine offered during the tasting – it was a cheap bottle of Californian Cabernet – was labeled both as a $5 wine (it’s actual retail price) and as a $45 dollar wine, a 900 percent markup. All of the red wines were sipped inside an fMRI machine. Not surprisingly, the subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better. They preferred the $90 bottle to the $10 bottle, and thought the $45 Cabernet was far superior to the $5 plonk.
Of course, the wine preferences of the subjects were clearly nonsensical. Instead of acting like rational agents – getting the most utility for the lowest possible price – they were choosing to spend more money for an identical product. When the scientists repeated the experiment with members of the Stanford University wine club, they got the same results. In a blind tasting, these “semi-experts” were also misled by the made-up price tage.
After Rangel and his colleagues finished their brain imaging experiment, they asked the subjects to taste the five different wines again, only this time the scientists didn’t provide any price information. Although the subjects had just listed the $90 wine as the most pleasant, they now completely reversed their preferences. When the tasting was truly blind, when the subjects were no longer biased by their prefrontal cortex, the cheapest wine got the highest ratings.
Wine is one of the many subjects in life I’m totally ignorant about – but I’ve long suspected that the increasing number of wine bores in our society has less to do with an appreciation of the vine than the fact that its a publically acceptable way to be an alcoholic. Telling people you are ‘going to a tasting’ is so much classier than admitting you’re heading home alone to knock back three or four bottles of claret.