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Leonard Mlodinow
Leonard Mlodinow

Why People Choose Coke Over Pepsi

How our brains create our consumer experience.

In my last blog entry I talked about how our unconscious mind takes the rather crude visual data collected by your retina, processes it, and presents your conscious mind with a clear and detailed picture. What you perceive looks real, but it isn’t a direct recording of what’s out there – it is a constructed image created from that data by filling in the missing blanks employing context, your expectations, your prior knowledge and beliefs, and even your desires. Our social perceptions are constructed in an analogous manner: we normally have limited data, and fill in the blanks employing context, expectations, etc. Hence our judgments of people, our experience of products, and even our assessment of financial and business data, are never purely objective reflections of our social reality. But since we are aware of only our conscious influences, and not the process our unconscious mind employs to construct our experience, we are often mistaken about the roots of our feelings, judgments, and behavior. Consider your life as a social consumer.

Suppose you are in a grocery store, trying to decide what kind of wine to drink with dinner. As you stroll down the aisle you look at different wines, pondering the “data” on each label concerning the grapes each wine is made from, the wine’s vintage, cost, etc. You consciously weigh all that information, and in addition you probably consider what you’ll be eating with the wine. But do you also base your decision on irrelevant “environmental” factors such as the music that plays in the background as you peruse the wines? Would you buy German wine rather than French because you were hearing German beer hall music as you walked down the liquor aisle?

In a study of exactly that question, four French and four German wines, matched for price and dryness, were placed on the shelves of a supermarket in England. French and German music were played on alternate days from a tape deck on the top shelf of the display. And indeed, on days when the French music played, 77 percent of the wine purchased was French, while on the days of German music, 73 percent of the wine purchased was German. Clearly, the music was a crucial factor in which type of wine shoppers chose to buy, but when asked whether the music influenced their choice, only one shopper in seven said that it had.

In another study, subjects were given three different boxes of detergent and asked to try them all out for a few weeks, then report on which they liked best and why. One box was predominantly yellow, another blue, and the third was blue with splashes of yellow. In their reports the subjects overwhelmingly favored the detergent in the box with mixed colors. Their reports included much about the relative merits of the detergents, but none mentioned the box. Why should they? A pretty box doesn’t make the detergent work better. But in reality it was just the box that differed – the detergents inside were all identical.

When judging a product, we rarely have exhaustive scientific data to go by. As a result, if we are to form a complete picture, we must fill in the blanks, just as we must in our visual perception. And so our unconscious mind does just that, completing the picture for us, with the result that our assessment of a product is based not only on the product, but also very much on its packaging, branding, and even the music that serenades us as we assess it. We unwittingly judge products by their boxes, books by their covers, and even corporation’s annual reports by their nice glossy finish. Together many factors that are not directly related to a product conspire to create our mental experience.

“People think that their enjoyment of a product is based on the qualities of the product, but their experience of it is also very much based on the product’s marketing,” says Rangel. “For example, the same beer, described in different ways, or labeled as different brands, or with a different price, can taste very different. The same is true for wine, even though people like to believe it’s all in the grapes, and the winemaker’s expertise.”

Could a brain really conclude that one beverage tastes better than another when they are physically the same? The naive view is that sensory signals, such as taste, travel from the sense organ to the region of the brain where they are experienced, in a more or less straightforward fashion. But alhough you are unaware of it, when you run cool wine over your tongue, you don’t just taste its chemical composition, you taste its price and many other aspects of the drink that do not register on tongue. The effect has been dramatically demonstrated in the Coke-Pepsi wars, with regard to brand. The effect was long ago dubbed the “Pepsi paradox”, referring to the fact that Pepsi consistently beats Coke in blind taste tests, although people seem to prefer Coke when they know what they are drinking.

Over the years various theories have been proposed to explain this. One obvious explanation is the effect of the brand name, but if you ask people whether it is all those uplifting Coke ads they’ve seen over the years that they are really tasting when they slurp their beverage, they almost always deny it. Then in the early 2000s, new brain imaging studies found evidence that that an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VMPC, is the seat of the warm fuzziness we experience when we contemplate a familiar brand-name product. And so in 2007, researchers recruited a group of participants whose brain scans showed significant VMPC damage, and also a group whose VMPC was healthy.

As expected, both the normal and the brain-damaged volunteers preferred Pepsi to Coke when they did not know what they were drinking. And, as expected, those with healthy brains switched their preference when they knew what they were drinking. But those who had damage to their VMPC – their brain’s “brand appreciation” module – did not change preferences. They liked Pepsi better whether or not they knew what they were drinking. Without the ability to unconsciously experience a warm and fuzzy feeling toward a brand name, there is no Pepsi paradox.

The lesson here has nothing to do with Pepsi, wine or laundry detergents. It is that what is true of beverages and brands is also true of the other ways we experience the social world. Our brains employ far more than direct, explicit data on products (or people) to create our mental experience. They key word here is “create”. Our brains are not recording experiences, they are creating them.

Adapted from Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behavior by Leonard Mlodinow copyright 2012

About the Author
Leonard Mlodinow

Leonard Mlodinow is the author of Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.

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