US scientists have discovered that the more expensive a person believes a wine to be, the greater the pleasure they experience when drinking it. They showed this using self-reports and scans of increased blood oxygen flow to parts of the brain involved in pleasure experience.

The study is published in the January 14th online issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is the work of researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, and Stanford University, also in California.

The researchers wanted to find out more about the neural mechanisms through which marketing of wine affected the decisions people make. Their hypothesis was that the price of a wine affected the way a person experienced it in their pleasure circuits in the brain.

They tested their hypothesis using functional MRI (fMRI) scans of people while they tasted wine samples they thought were from different wines at different prices, when in reality they were the same.

The researchers gave 20 participants three Cabernet Sauvignon wines but told them they were five different wines at different prices. They sampled a 90 dollar wine, marked with its real price, and also marked with a different label and price of 10 dollars. They also sampled a 5 dollar wine, marked with its reals price, and with a different label and price of 45 dollars.

The results showed that increasing the price of the wine increased the participants’ subjective report of the pleasantness of the flavour. However, much to the astonishment of the researchers, the fMRI scans also showed a higher level of oxygen-level-dependent activity in a part of the brain that is widely believed to be involved in the experience of pleasantness, the medial orbitofrontal cortex.

In a separate tasting test where prices were not shown, the participants rated the 5 dollar wine as superior to the rest.

Lead author Antonio Rangel, who is associate professor of economics at the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Caltech, told the press that they were “shocked” when they saw the results.

According to the Associated Press, Rangel said in a telephone interview:

“I think it was because the flavor was stronger and our subjects were not very experienced.”

He said he hoped that a professional wine taster would not be so easily fooled.

The researchers concluded that:

“The paper provides evidence for the ability of marketing actions to modulate neural correlates of experienced pleasantness and for the mechanisms through which the effect operates.”

According to CNet News, the researchers also reported on other studies in this field. For example one on beer showed that knowledge of its ingredients and brand affects taste quality, and in another, people’s expectations affected how much they enjoyed, or said they enjoyed, a film. And, intriguingly, the ability to solve puzzles while consuming an energy drink is directly related to the price the drink is sold at.

Other experts suggest this phenomenon is more complex than these results might show. For example, the participants in this study did not pay for the wine themselves. The pleasure may also have have come from thinking they were drinking an expensive wine they had not paid for themselves. Who knows what the effect of paying for the wine themselves might have had on their taste experience?

Speaking to Times Online, Scott Rick, who researches neuroeconomics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said that:

“There are people who derive pleasure from spending, and those for whom it is painful.”

Rick mentioned a piece of research involving 13,000 people that found 15 per cent were spendthrifts who derived pleasure from spending, and 25 per cent were “tight wads”, who found spending money painful, while the rest fell somewhere in between.

“Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness.”
Hilke Plassmann, John O’Doherty, Baba Shiv, and Antonio Rangel.
PNAS published early online January 14, 2008.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0706929105

Sources: PNAS abstract, Associated Press, CNet News, Times Online.

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Written by: Catharine Paddock