Higher price makes cheap wine taste better

A new brain scanning study has supported what we’ve suspected all along, more expensive wine tastes better partly because we expect it to.

Neuroscientist Hilke Plassman led a brain-scanning study [pdf], shortly to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where volunteers were asked to taste and rate five different wines, each individually priced.

What the volunteers didn’t know was that there were only three different wines, and two of them were tasted twice. One one occasion it was described as costing $90 a bottle, on another as costing $10 a bottle.

The volunteers rated the ‘more expensive’ wine as significantly more likeable despite being identical to the ‘cheaper’ wine.

In addition, the brain scans showed when the volunteers tasted the wine they thought was more expensive, their brains showed increased activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) and its surrounding area, the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), both areas of the frontal lobes.

The orbitofrontal cortex is known to be involved in the regulation of emotions and encoding the ‘value’ of experiences. Unsurprisingly, it has been identified as a key area in studies of gambling.

However, it has also been previously found to correlate with ratings of pleasantness of smells, tastes and even music.

Interestingly, there was no difference in the brain areas directly related to experiencing taste, and the researchers suggest that the belief that the wine is more expensive probably doesn’t directly change our sensory experience, but leads us to think that the experience is more ‘valuable’.

The results echo behavioural studies which have found that the same wine is rated differently when served in different quality bottles.

pdf of full-text paper.
Link to write-up from The Times.

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