Oh! The Psychology of Wine. I need to get into this field badly. Several remarks on my esteemed blog-partner’s post. First it’s interesting to note the effect of wine expertise on the relationship between drinker satisfaction and price. It seems the more you know about wine, the more you enjoy the expensive stuff. At first blush, then, it seems that ignorance is bliss. Why would I want to cultivate a taste for expensive wines when I can derive as much enjoyment from cheap wines without any effort at all? That would be silly of me. Of course, this finding begs the question of why “experts” prefer the expensive wines and “novices” the cheaper. It can’t be that experts and novices are hard-wired differently. There can’t be differences in the neuronal architecture of their tastebud reward circuitry. It’s not that people who are equipped with a set of taste buds that don’t respond positively to cheap wine, but do respond positively to expensive wine, are more likely to learn about wine and become experts. Instead, it has to be a socially constructed phenomenon. As people learn more and more about wine, they learn to associate what an expensive wine tastes like with the concept of “good” and associate what a cheap wine tastes like with the concept of “bad”, and this learning occurs completely detached from their sensory system feedback. Over time, this learned association can actually shape the output of the sensory system and directly affect their experience of the wine they are drinking such that they begin to actually enjoy expensive wines more than cheaper wines.

Indeed, I imagine that if this study had been run with participants aware of the price of the wine they were drinking, a strong positive correlation would have emerged. This should not be surprising- it is commonly believed that the more expensive a wine is, the better it is. Therefore we’re more likely to report we like a wine that we know to be expensive due to the pressure to appear as knowledgeable about wine as possible. In short, the exact same wine will taste significantly better to drinkers when they believe the price to be $200 as opposed to $10. If so, then one could argue that increasing the price of a wine would have a positive effect on the consumer as it would also increase the enjoyment of that wine.

So my take away from the article is this: Given that it’s impossible to be blind to the price of wine that one drinks, it is not simply the case that cheap wine will taste better. You can avoid learning about wine and get around the effect that expertise has on preference, but you can’t ignore price. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The imperfections of the processes that lead to our preferences when it comes to an ambiguous stimulus like a glass of wine can work in our favor, helping us feel just a little bit better about a really bad purchase.