The Decision Tree

Decision-making from all perspectives

Cheap and Expensive Wine Taste the Same in Blind Taste Tests

What does that tell us about human psychology?

Wine is a multi-billion dollar industry part of the modern world. There are stores devoted just to selling wine, magazines devoted to it, wineries are a major tourist destination, and so on. And yet, weirdly, we know that much of this is a psychological artifact.

We are quite bad at tasting the differences between different wines. Even experts are easily fooled. You put a misleading label on a bottle of wine and the experts’ opinions can change dramatically. You can even warm up white wine and color it red (with food coloring) and many judges will think it is a red wine.

This is not just true for wine. Most people can’t taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi (even though most people think they can – I’ve done the experiments). The same is probably true with your favorite drink – say, Powerade vs Gatorade, or your favorite vitamin water or even bourbon. Calling something Tahitian Vanilla makes it taste better than plain old Vanilla. Calling something Oaxaca black bean dip makes it taste better than calling it black bean dip. And so on.

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These findings are usually associated with hand-wringing and shock (among wine experts and food lovers) and with some glee from laymen. But I think most of us are disappointed to learn that most of our eating experiences are happening in our minds, not our palates.

But they aren’t really exceptional or weird at all. If it's any comfort, most everything we experience most of the time comes mostly from your mind, not the world outside. We just forget that a lot.  

Let’s try a different example. You want a new painting in your bedroom and you are a multi-millionaire. You can get an authentic work by your favorite artist at the price of $10 million. A friend in the art world let you know that there is a very masterful forgery available for $500,000. It looks so similar that a panel of 6 experts concluded it was real, including the artist himself. It was only when the forger was arrested for other crimes that, as part of his plea bargain, he admitted to his forgeries.

Why in the world would you ever pay for the original? [Let’s assume here that you are not planning to sell the work – you just want to display it in your home]. It's because there’s some psychological satisfaction you get from knowing it’s real. And that’s worth millions of dollars, even though it's illogical.

And it’s the same impulse that makes us cherish relics of saints and war heroes. It’s the same force that makes visiting museums and castles so powerful – that’s the very bed that Marie Antoinette herself slept in! That’s why it matters to us whether the Shroud of Turin, for example, is real. It doesn’t change the way it looks, but it dramatically changes the way we feel about it. 

The mind takes in information from the sensory world all the time, but that information is just raw material for our experiences. We constantly interpret that and place it into the context of the worlds we have created in our heads. The background story of some item influences those expectations and changes our interpretation — that that's just as real — to us — as the way wine tastes or a painting looks.

So if you are a wine lover, don’t feel bad about paying $80 for a bottle of wine that you yourself can’t tell apart from a $8 bottle in a blind taste test. What hits your tongue isn’t all that you taste. It’s all the story behind the wine, and that enters your tongue through your brain.

Ben Hayden, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.

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