Last week I wrote about how the placebo effect can have a potent effect on medical symptoms. The reason: the power of expectations. We expect to get better and so we do.

Here’s a related thought experiment. Suppose I’m a sommelier and someone orders a $20 bottle of wine and I serve it to them. Then another customer orders a $100 bottle of wine. Is it unethical for me to serve them the $20 bottle and tell them it’s the $100 bottle? What if they can’t tell the difference?

And here’s the real question: What if the person who thinks it’s a $100 bottle actually enjoys it more?

That's just what a team at Caltech and Stanford recently did, and brain scans confirmed that people don't just think the more expensive (but identical) wine tasted better—it actually really did taste better, as reflected by brain scans that showed their pleasure centers lighting up like Christmas trees. The phenomenon is called the price-placebo effect, and it, too, is fueled by the the power of expectations. Cognitive dissonance may also play a role: If you pay that much, you reason, it must be worth it, and the large psychological investment actually increases your satisfaction.

As Jonah Lehrer puts it in his Boston Globe article:

People assume that they perceive reality as it is, that our senses accurately record the outside world. Yet the science suggests that, in important ways, people experience reality not as it is, but as they expect it to be.

The same thing may have been going on with Eliot Spitzer, suggests Shankar Vedantam in Sunday’s Washington Post. It is, after all, hard to fathom how a $5000 sexual encounter could be that much better than a $500 one. But the mere expectation that it will be better may be sufficient to actually make it better. And it may be that had we scanned Spitzer’s brain in medias res, we would have seen not only that he thought it was better, but that he was actually deriving more pleasure than a governor in another room who was paying only $500 or $50.

Sure, Spitzer is a hypocrite and a cheater, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t getting a good value from his hookers.

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