When it comes to food quality, you get what you pay for, right? Not necessarily. According to a new study, price influences how we judge the quality of foods, but it may not be a true reflection of how good the product is.

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How we judge the quality of a meal may be influenced by how much we pay for it, according to new research.

The study was conducted by researchers from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and published in the Journal of Product & Brand Management.

The research team – including Dr. David Just of the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell – notes that psychologists have long believed that an experience’s most intense part (the peak) and the last part (the end) form our overall judgment about the quality of that experience.

For their study, Dr. Just and colleagues decided to test whether this theory changes dependent on how much we pay for an experience – in this case, dining out.

The research involved 139 individuals who dined at an all-you-can-eat Italian restaurant. The participants were allocated to one of two groups: one group was charged $4 for their meal, while the other was charged $8.

After eating, each participant was asked to rate the taste, enjoyment and satisfaction of each slice of pizza they consumed, as well as evaluate the overall experience.

The team found that when it to came to overall enjoyment, taste and satisfaction of the pizza for subjects who paid $4 for their meal, the peak-end theory applied; they rated the overall experience based on the peak rating of taste and the last slice they ate.

The participants who paid $8 for their meal, however, rated their overall experience based purely on their impressions of the first slice of pizza they ate.

The team says their findings indicate the peak-end theory may be dependent on certain contextual factors; in the case of this study, how we judge a meal may be largely influenced by the price we pay for it.

Dr. Just adds:

This is a first look at how price can change what you pay attention to in judging quality. It is really remarkable how simply increasing the price can lead one to focus so much less on the end experience and so much more on that first impression.”

He adds that restaurants could use these results to boost business; if charging moderate to high prices, they may benefit from providing their customers with the best experience first, while lower-priced establishments may be better off saving the best for last.

Earlier this month, Medical News Today reported on a study published in the journal Food Research International, in which investigators found the taste of certain foods can change a person’s mood.

In that study, the team found that vanilla yogurt induced happiness among participants – an effect that was not seen with yogurts of other flavors.