Why expensive wine tastes better
I like wine, but I won’t pretend I’m anything of a connoisseur. I can barely tell the difference between different kinds of wine, let alone vintages and vineyards. There’s no way I could tell the difference between a $15 bottle and a $100 bottle.
But apparently, if I’m like most people, I enjoy expensive wine better. In 2007, Hilke Plassmann and a group of CalTech and Stanford economists ran an experiment. A group of expert wine tasters were told to try five different wines and rate their enjoyment. The catch was that the researchers actually only gave them three wines to taste. For one tasting, a duplicated wine would have a $10 price tag and for a second, it would have a $90 price tag.
First, it was notable that the experts couldn’t tell that they were being given the same wines twice. They always rated the $90 bottles superior to the $10 bottles, even though they were actually the same wine. But even more notable, when the researchers scanned the pleasure centers of the tasters’ brains, they found it became more stimulated when the tasters tried the $90 bottle. It turned out that the tasters got pleasure not just from the actual taste of the wine, but from the expectations that sipping from a $90 or $10 bottle gave them.
Or take another experiment, run by an economics professor from Cornell. In this one, they gave restaurant visitors a free bottle of wine and told them it was from North Dakota. Not only did the visitors drink less wine than they did when told it was from California, they ate less food too.
Expectations are as good as the medicine itself
In case you’re not familiar with the origins of the placebo effect, let me give a quick rundown for you. Doctors have observed the “placebo effect” since the 1700s, when they first started to notice that patients responded to the confident or pleasing demeanors of the doctors just as often as they responded to the treatments themselves. (Ironically, I bet the placebo effect was more effective than plenty of the “treatments” doctors used back then. Leeches anyone?)
In Latin, the word “placebo” translates to “I shall please.” Since the “placebo effect” can have decidedly un-pleasing consequences…does it ever help when the doctor tells you “this won’t hurt a bit” before a shot?…doctors started using the term “nocebo” to describe negative psychological consequences in the 1960s.
And since their discoveries, the placebo and nocebo effects have been studied to death. Brand name drugs work better than generics, yes. But did you know that a regular white pill works less than a colored pill? Or that a colored pill is less effective than a colored pill with a little letter stamped on it? Our subconscious has apparently not only decided that brand names are best—it’s actually ranked the effectiveness of a drug by how fancy it looks.
Or how about this one, which is surely a thorn in the side of medical researchers. In tests of new drugs, it’s common to give a “control group” with an ailment a placebo to compare against the group actually receiving the drugs. Medical test subjects know this. Well, according to a study, simply telling a group that it’s possible they’re receiving a placebo is enough to reduce the effectiveness of the real drug. Talk about a nocebo effect. (Actually, technically a “nocebo” (Latin for “I will harm”) would be a negative effect of a placebo, not a negative effect of telling someone you gave them a placebo. But give me a little literary license here.) (Also, excuse the double parenthetical.)
The placebo effect in economics
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the Obama administration has actually done this, but several economists have at least talked about using the placebo effect to regulate the economy. That is, instead of spending a trillion dollars to implement complex economic policies that few people understand, why not spend a fraction of that on policies people do understand and tell them how great and powerful the new policy is?
First, to the extent that the real problem is fear, this militates in favour of placebo policies. By that I mean initiatives which appear bold and have great symbolic value, but which don’t necessarily cost us very much. I haven’t seen us make a major attempt to identify such proposals, but it is unlikely that an $800 billion stimulus fits the bill. I would sooner beef up automatic stabilisers, and aid to state and local governments, and claim that this, along with some regulatory changes, will help the economy.
But, shh, don’t tell anyone. Remember, that reduces the effect.
Putting it into practice
Sadly, unless you’re able to truly trick yourself into believing something, I don’t think you can regularly use the placebo effect on yourself. But if there’s any message to take from this story, it’s that setting expectations for others can have a dramatic impact on their enjoyment or lack of enjoyment of whatever you’re giving them.
For wine, that doesn’t have to mean lying about a bottle’s price. Instead, you can simply talk up the wine’s origins—say that the wine shop keeper recommended it, or that you’ve enjoyed the wine before. If you’re serving lamb, and it was imported from New Zealand, say that it was imported from New Zealand, and that the country is known for its sumptuous lamb dishes (it is). I’m convinced that this is why you can’t just buy “eggs” from Trader Joe’s. They’re always “farm-fresh eggs” or, even better, “delicious farm-fresh eggs”.
Parents, don’t just give your kids medicine. Tell them how much better it will make them feel. Some studies have shown that the demeanor of the doctor greatly heightens or lessens the effectiveness of a drug. And maybe letting them watch all those Tylenol commercials isn’t a bad thing.
I’ve always been a fan of setting expectations low and surpassing them. But maybe this upsets that theory. Can you think of other areas where setting great expectations has helped you?