My Cortex Made Me Buy It
By By M. P. DUNLEAVEY
Published: February 9, 2008
WHEN I invited a friend to dinner one day last summer, she mentioned that she would bring some Blue Nun white wine, in a box.
If you’re not accustomed to hearing the words “box” and “wine” in the same sentence, the idea might sound unappealing. Perhaps even déclassé. Not that I wanted to admit these thoughts to my friend, but my exclamation — “Blue Nun? In a box?” — did make my skepticism rather clear.
Fortunately she just laughed at my snobbery, and said that boxed wine today was far from the old Chablis with a spigot, which some of us may recall from college bars and family picnics. She even used the word “tasty” — which although not top of the oenophile vocabulary, sounded promising.
And she was right. Blue Nun in a box was surprisingly tasty, all things considered, and the embarrassing experience of having my cheap wine prejudice exposed has forced me to examine how far this financial bias goes.
I feared that the wine incident was evidence that somehow I actually believed that paying more for things means they’re better, even though I know it isn’t true. There is research suggesting that the bias toward higher-priced goods may have something to do with the way the brain links price with pleasure — and thus leads people to make assumptions about quality.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month, researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University asked 20 volunteers to taste and evaluate five wine samples, which were labeled according to price: $5, $10, $35, $45 and $90 a bottle. All of the volunteers identified themselves as moderate wine drinkers and not experts.
They said they liked the more expensive wines best. And brain scans taken as the volunteers sipped and rated the wines showed that the higher-priced wines generated more activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain that responds to certain pleasurable experiences.
But there was a catch: although subjects were told that they were tasting five different wines, in fact they sampled only three. The $90 wine was presented twice, once at its real price and once as a $10 wine; the $5 wine was also presented as a $45 wine. When the wines were offered at the higher price, participants preferred them — and their brains registered greater pleasure.
When they sampled the wines with lower prices, however, the subjects not only liked them less, their brains registered less pleasure from the experience. It seems that what these subjects really liked was the price tag, not the product.
APPARENTLY my brain had a similar reaction at the thought of drinking Blue Nun from a box, which costs about $20 for a container that packs the equivalent of four 750-milliliter bottles of wine. But why? Does the brain fire up at the sight of a higher price tag in any context?
The study’s authors examined responses only to different wines, not to cars or clothes, said Antonio Rangel, associate professor of economics at Caltech and one of the authors of the paper. He hesitated to extrapolate too much, but he said that there were reasons to suspect that the price tag bias occurs in many contexts.
Given the human love affair with high-priced luxury goods, and their association with status and power, it’s possible that we’ve come to experience a cerebral shiver of delight in response to things that promise that cachet. It is as if consuming high-end goods might lead to a personal transformation that bargain-hunting can’t buy.
Professor Rangel said that the pleasure we take from something “seems to depend on our beliefs about our experience of that thing.” It’s interesting that the study also suggests we aren’t always aware of these beliefs — even though we end up paying for them.
As a result of my adventures in boxed wine, my husband and I have had some success exploring the realm of drinkable plonk. I think my medial orbitofrontal cortex is struggling with this new development, but it is balanced by the financial lobe’s pleasure in saving money.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
From the New York Times, an anti-economy bias is confronted with an old classic in a new economical package: