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Sunday, March 2, 2008

What wine can tell us about the nature of reality

SCIENTISTS AT CALTECH and Stanford recently published the results of a peculiar wine tasting. They provided people with cabernet sauvignons at various price points, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the tasters were told that all the wines were different, the scientists were in fact presenting the same wines at different prices.

The experiment was even more unusual because it was conducted inside a scanner - the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes - that allowed the scientists to see how the subjects' brains responded to each wine. When subjects were told they were getting a more expensive wine, they observed more activity in a part of the brain known to be involved in our experience of pleasure.

What they saw was the power of expectations. People expect expensive wines to taste better, and then their brains literally make it so. Wine lovers shouldn't feel singled out: Antonio Rangel, the Caltech neuroeconomist who led the study, insists that he could have used a variety of items to get similar results, from bottled water to modern art.

Expectations have long been a topic of psychological research, and it's well known that they affect how we react to events, or how we respond to medication. But in recent years, scientists have been intensively studying how expectations shape our direct experience of the world, what we taste, feel, and hear. The findings have been surprising - did you know that generic drugs can be less effective merely because they cost less? - and it's now becoming clear just how pervasive the effects of expectation are.

The human brain, research suggests, isn't built for objectivity. The brain doesn't passively take in perceptions. Rather, brain regions involved in developing expectations can systematically alter the activity of areas involved in sensation. The cortex is "cooking the books," adjusting its own inputs depending on what it expects.

Although much of this research has been done by scientists interested in marketing and consumer decisions, the work has broad implications. 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.

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Even our most primal bodily sensations, like pain, are vulnerable to the influence of expectation. Tor Wager, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, gave college students electrical shocks while they were stuck in a brain-scanning machine. Half of the people were then supplied with a placebo, which in this case was a fake pain-relieving cream. Even though the cream had no analgesic properties - it was just a hand moisturizer - people given the pretend cream said the shocks were significantly less painful Wager then imaged the specific parts of the brain that controlled this psychological process. When people were told that they'd just received a pain-relieving cream, their prefrontal cortex, a brain area normally associated with rational thought, responded by inhibiting the activity of brain areas (like the insula) that normally respond to pain. However, when the same people were informed that the cream was "ineffective," their prefrontal cortex went silent. Because people expected to experience less pain, they ended up experiencing less pain. Their predictions became self-fulfilling prophecies.

more stories like thisA similar mental process helps explain a wide variety of seemingly bizarre consumer behaviors. Baba Shiv, a neuroeconomist at Stanford, supplied people with an "energy" drink containing a potent brew of sugar and caffeine. Some participants paid full price for the drinks, while others were offered a discount. The participants were then asked to solve a series of word puzzles. To Shiv's surprise, the people who paid discounted prices consistently solved fewer puzzles than the people who paid full price for the drinks, even though the drinks were identical.

"We ran the study again and again, not sure if what we got had happened by chance," Shiv says. "But every time we ran it we got the same results."

Why did the cheaper energy drink prove less effective? According to Shiv, a kind of placebo effect is at work. Since we expect cheaper goods to be less effective, they generally are less effective, even if they are identical to more expensive products. This is why brand-name aspirin works better than generic aspirin and why Coke tastes better than cheaper colas, even if most consumers can't tell the difference in blind taste tests.

"We have these general beliefs about the world - for example, that cheaper products are of lower quality - and they translate into specific expectations about specific products," said Shiv.

One of the implications of Shiv's experiment is that it's possible to make a product more "effective" by increasing its price. A good marketing campaign can have a similar effect, as it instills consumers with lofty expectations about the quality of the product. For instance, Shiv cites research showing that cars made in the same factory, with the same parts, but sold under different brand names (such as Toyota and Geo) receive markedly different reliability ratings from consumers. When we drive a car with a less exalted brand name, we are more likely to notice minor mechanical problems.

Expectations can even play havoc with experts. A few years ago, Frederic Brochet, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bordeaux, conducted a rather mischievous experiment. He invited 54 experienced wine tasters to give their impressions of a red wine and a white wine. Not surprisingly, the experts described the wines with the standard set of adjectives: the red wine was "jammy" and full of "crushed red fruit." The white wine, meanwhile, tasted of lemon, peaches, and honey. The next day, Brochet invited the wine experts back for another tasting. This time, however, he dyed the white wine with red food coloring, so that it looked as if they were tasting two red wines. The trick worked. The experts described the dyed white wine with the language typically used to describe red wines. The peaches and honey tasted like black currants.

According to Brochet, the lesson of his experiment is that our experience is the end result of an elaborate interpretive process, in which the brain parses our sensations based upon our expectations. If we think a wine is red, or that a certain brand is better, then we will interpret our senses to preserve that belief. Such distortions are a fundamental feature of the brain.

Nevertheless, scientists insist that consumers can take steps to protect themselves from their expectations. "Try to fact-check yourself," Shiv says. "Organize a blind taste test. Experiment with generic cold medicines, but don't let yourself know that they are generic. Decide how you feel about a pair of shoes before you look at the price tag." Shiv is convinced that this kind of self-experimentation can save consumers money. Instead of trusting big-name brands, or naively assuming that we always get what we pay for, consumers can learn to bargain hunt.

Rangel's wine experiment demonstrated the benefits of this approach. After the researchers finished their brain imaging, they asked the subjects to taste the five different wines again, only this time the scientists didn't provide any price information. Although the subjects had just listed the $90 wine as the most pleasant, they now completely reversed their preferences. When the tasting was truly blind, when the subjects were no longer biased by their expectations, the cheapest wine got the highest ratings. It wasn't fancy, but it tasted the best.

Jonah Lehrer is an editor at large at Seed magazine and author of "Proust Was a Neuroscientist."

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