Expensive Wine Just Tastes Betterby Nicole Obert | February 4, 2008
A recent study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that marketing can have a significant effect on the neural mechanisms governing decision-making. The study measured the “experienced pleasantness” of three different wines, both by subjective reporting of the test subjects’ perceptions of the wines, and by measuring activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a known “pleasure center” in the brain. Test results indicated that even when wines were identical, subjects’ levels of experienced pleasantness differed according to the reported price of the wine; the same wine tasted better when the subject believed that it was a sample from a $45 bottle of wine than when she was told it was from a $5 bottle.
Investigators recognized that subjects may be influenced, at least in their subjective reports of the wines, by a sense that they should find the more expensive wines to be more pleasant; however, the MRI results bore out the reports of experienced pleasantness. Furthermore, two months after the initial experiment, subjects were re-tested with the same wines, but without the pricing information. Results of the follow-up interviews showed, as expected, no difference in the perception of the identical wines.
Interestingly, areas of the brain considered primary taste centers were not affected by the difference in pricing, indicating that the experienced pleasantness is a combination of actual sensory perception and cognitive expectation of pleasure. Why might the brain make these connections? The investigators suggest that the complex task of decision-making may actually be enhanced by the expectation/sensory perception combination, in that the act of making choices often depends on past experiences. In cases like these, past experience may indicate that higher prices, at least in wines, typically translate to higher quality; coupled with neutral sensory perceptions, price truly does increase the pleasure of the taste.
How might these results affect advertising, marketing, and the economy in general? While further study on the neural basis for experienced pleasantness is necessary, it seems reasonable to conjecture that marketing and advertisements that are designed to raise the expectation of the quality of a product may, in fact, increase the consumer’s satisfaction with the project in a physiological way. This may warrant an adjustment to contemporary economic thinking, which asserts that the intrinsic quality of a product will derive its place in the market; this study indicates that artificially increasing (or decreasing) its price significantly changes the experiential pleasantness of the product. Thus, an externally-applied characteristic of the product designed to change the expectation of the quality of the product can and should be factored into its experienced utility.
Plassmann, H., O’Doherty, J., Shiv, B., & Rangel, A. (2008). Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1050-1054.
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