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This Is Your Brain on Wine

Researchers found (again) that people like wine more when they think it costs more—but blame your mind, not the wine
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 6, 2017 10:00am ET

By Mitch Frank

Dr. Hilke Plassmann is an accomplished person. A professor at the international business school INSEAD, she studies marketing by collaborating with neuroscientists to learn how the human brain decides which products to buy. Her most recent study, published in Scientific Reports, hypothesizes that the brain’s anterior prefrontal cortex, which pairs new information from the environment with memories, might help us form expectations about things we are purchasing.

But here’s my problem with Dr. Plassmann’s work. She keeps picking on wine.

For more than a decade now, Plassmann and fellow researchers have conducted studies employing wine to test our brains. In the most recent study, Plassmann and colleagues at the University of Bonn asked 30 people to each taste more than 100 1.25-milliliter wine samples while lying in an MRI scanner for about 90 minutes. (The wine was poured into the participants’ mouths via a tube.)

The subjects were told that the samples came from three different wines, which cost 3, 6 or 18 euros per bottle. Before each taste, the subjects were told which wine they were supposedly getting. In reality, all three wines were the same—a red that retailed for 12 euros, about $14. Most participants said they liked the wine they thought was most expensive the best.

Reading about this study, two thoughts come to my temporal lobes. First, lying in an MRI machine for 90 minutes while someone squirts wine into my mouth sounds like the world’s worst tasting-room experience.

And second, why wine?

Dr. Plassmann and her team have made some important discoveries. Their similar study two years ago found that people responded differently to the challenge based on their brain structure. In the newest work, they’ve isolated the region at play—the same part of our brain that's susceptible to placebos. It’s a region that processes information and compares it to past experiences to make subjective judgments.

“Participants might recruit this brain region when reflecting on the external information from the price cue and their subjective beliefs and memories about how expensive and less expensive wines should taste,” the authors write in their paper. (There’s a reason Wine Spectator tasters don’t know prices when they review wines.)

But the study plays on an age-old suspicion that wine is a con job. People wonder how fermented grape juice can cost so much or why anyone would pay so much money for a wine just because it comes from a certain hill in Burgundy. (Tales of wealthy collectors getting fooled by counterfeits do not help.)

As a Time article describing a 2015 Plassmann paper put it, “A new study confirms what prior research (and, in some cases, gut feeling) has told us for years: Most people can't really taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine.” Reading that, I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of people cried out in glee and shouted, “Suckers!”

But you know what? Wine is not the only product you could use for this test. In our consumer society, we are constantly making purchases where we may not have enough knowledge about quality, so we tend to fall back on marketing, or reputation, or packaging, or, yes, price.

We decide to trust the label on the artisanal cheese that tells us it cost more because it comes from happier goats. We decide that if a head of lettuce is organic, it makes it worth the extra money, even if we never visited the farm. We really want the new iPhone, even if it costs more than other phones, because it makes us feel cool.

Our fascinating brains evolved to help us make quick judgments when hunting or gathering (or shopping) for food. Is that food nutritious? Is it delicious? Will it kill me?

Today we force our brains to choose from hundreds of products, brightly packaged and shrewdly marketed. And yes, sometimes we tell ourselves the more expensive thing must be better. But the "fault" lies in our brains, dear reader, not the wine.

Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  September 7, 2017 2:25pm ET

In addition to your questions, I have to wonder if there would be a difference in responses based on where respondents live? Are Americans just as likely to prefer a wine because it is believed to be more expensive as the respondents to this survey? I have to think that background and cultural identity would play a role in responses.

Adam Lee
Mitch Frank
New Orleans, LA —  September 14, 2017 1:35pm ET

Thanks for the comment - it's an interesting question. This study was conducted at the University of Bonn. They advertised for volunteers on campus and screened to make sure participants liked wine, but were not wine experts. Volunteers were paid 24 euro for their time.

Plassmann conducted a similar study with Stanford almost a decade ago that found similar results (and garnered similar headlines). I don't know if regional differences would have an impact. The study focuses on how our brain takes in information, both the taste of the wine and the price it was told and compares that to memories of past experiences and things we have been told. It's possible that cultural norms about wine and price would influence your taste perception.

But in my opinion, that would extend to anything you taste. Wine has just been chosen as an easy punching bag here.

All best,

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