Why Wine Tastes Better When It Costs More

From TIME - August 16, 2017

In 2015, scientists confirmed what all but the most serious wine drinkers have long suspected: That bottle of vino will taste better if you think it costs more. Now, in a new study published in Scientific Reports, researchers say theyve pinpointed the exact mechanism by which this marketing placebo effect happens.

Researchers at the business school INSEAD and the University of Bonn in Germany asked 30 people to taste samples of three different wines while lying in an MRI scanner. Each person received 108 tiny samples1.25 milliliters each, less than one glass of wine in totalover 90 minutes.

Before each taste test, everyone was told how much each wine supposedly cost: either 3, 6 or 18 euros per bottle. In reality, each of the three wines were identical and came from a bottle of red that retailed for 12 euros, or about $14.

People tended to rate the samples they were told were more expensive as better tasting. That was true regardless of whether they had to pay for the samples or not. (During some taste tests, people had a fraction of the wines stated price deducted from a monetary credit they received at the start of the study. During others, they were told the samples were free.)

This marketing placebo effect has its limits, however. To most people, a very low-quality but high-priced wine still wont taste as good as a high-quality, low-priced one. Researchers have also shown that people with more volume in areas of the brain that control sensory perception are less likely to rate something higher just because it costs morepresumably because they are more adept at tasting for themselves whether something is good or not.

But the 2015 study also showed that people with greater volume in brain regions associated with reward-seeking behavior were more susceptible to the placebo effect of higher prices. In the new research, MRI scans revealed exactly which brain regions became more active when people were told samples cost more.

One region, the anterior prefrontal cortex, is known for integrating new information from the environment with long-term memories, which could translate into making price comparisons and forming expectations, researchers say. This brain region has also been shown to play a role in the brains response to placebo medications for pain and anxiety.


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