Expensive wines appear to be tastier, say scientists who have found that a higher price tag on the bottle causes the reward centre in the brain to trick the taste processing regions.
The phenomenon that identical products are perceived differently due to differences in price is called the “marketing placebo effect.”
As with placebo medications, it has an effect solely due to ascribed properties: “Quality has its price!”
“However, it has so far been unclear how the price information ultimately causes more expensive wine to also be perceived as having a better taste in the brain,” said Bernd Weber, from the University of Bonn in Germany.
The researchers assessed how different prices are translated into corresponding taste experiences in the brain, even if the wine tasted does not differ.
Thirty participants took part in the study, of which 15 were women and 15 were men, with an average age of around 30 years.
The wine tasting took place lying down in an MRI scanner, allowing brain activity to be recorded “online” while participants were tasting the wines. Each time, the price of the wine was shown first.
Only then around a millilitre of the respective wine was given to the participants via a tube in their mouths. The participants were then asked to rate via a button on a nine-point scale how good the wine tasted to them.
Their mouths were then rinsed with a neutral liquid and the next identical wine sample was given for tasting.
Researchers conducted the tests using an average to good quality red wine with a retail bottle prize of 12 euros.
In the MRI scanner, the price of this wine was shown randomly as 3, 6 and 18 euros.
“As expected, the subjects stated that the wine with the higher price tasted better than an apparently cheaper one,” said Hilke Plassmann from the INSEAD Business School in France.
Identical wine leads to a better taste experience when a greater quality expectation is associated with the wine due to its price.
The measurements of brain activity in the MRI scanner confirmed this. The research team discovered that above all parts of the medial pre-frontal cortex and also the ventral striatum were activated more when prices were higher.
While the medial pre-frontal cortex particularly appears to be involved in integrating the price comparison and thus the expectation into the evaluation of the wine, the ventral striatum forms part of the brain’s reward and motivation system.
“The reward and motivation system is activated more significantly with higher prices and apparently increases the taste experience in this way,” said Weber.
“Ultimately, the reward and motivation system plays a trick on us,” said INSEAD post-doctoral fellow .
When prices are higher, it leads us to believe that a taste is present that is not only driven by the wine itself, because the products were objectively identical in all of the tastings.