An ingenious study just published in the Journal of Consumer Research has provided a striking demonstration that taste perceptions and product preferences are strongly influenced by our personal values – to the point where people who believe in the importance of social authority perceived a sausage roll labelled as vegetarian as far inferior to a ‘meat’ version, even though they ate the same sausage roll on both occasions.
The same result appeared whether the participants actually ate meat or vegetarian sausage rolls, and the participants couldn’t reliably distinguish the two in any condition.
The study, led by psychologist Michael Allen, is a neat demonstration of how our product preferences are influenced by an interaction of our personal values, the cultural meaning of the product and its physical properties, along the lines of an earlier study that found that wine described as more expensive tastes better, even when it was no different from the same wine described as being cheaper.
Of relevance to this study is that fact that red meat has been consistently associated with social power while grains, fruits and vegetables with social equality. What this new study suggests is that these social meanings interact with our own values to affect our perception.
If you think this effect might be specific to sausages, the study conducted a similar experiment with brands of cola, finding that people who endorsed the values linked to Pepsi (excitement, enjoyment, social power and recognition) perceived a cola labelled as Pepsi as tasting better, regardless of whether it actually was the genuine article, or whether it was a budget supermarket brand.
As we’ve discussed previously, perhaps what’s most interesting is that most consumers tend to think that they select products primarily on the basis of physical properties, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.
This is the ‘psychological blind spot’ which most marketing is targeted at. Indeed, I’ve always suspected that it’s the people who say “advertising doesn’t affect me” who are the marketers’ dream consumer, largely because they lack insight into the inescapable effects of marketing.
The study is well worth reading in full, or failing that, just the first few pages, as the introduction is a fascinating review of the psychology of product symbolism and how it affects decisions and preferences.
This research suggests that products have important social meanings that much product preference is driven by a need to manage our social appearance and identity.
It’s not that people who strongly identify with the importance of social power and eat red meat, or people who identify with excitement and drink Pepsi, just say they taste better.
The taste is genuinely different for them, but only when they think they are consuming these products. Assuming the products are similar to a certain degree, a significant slice of our perception is actually driven by what we want to be the case because of the values we already hold.