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See Inside April/May 2008

Paying for Pleasure

Wine tastes better when we think it costs more money

Do we get more when we pay more? A new study suggests that we do—our brain seems to equate price with pleasure.

Twenty volunteers had their brains scanned using functional MRI while they tasted five supposedly different cabernet sauvignons, each identified by a different price. In fact, there were only three different wines, two of which were presented twice, once at a high price and once at a low price.

The trick worked as expected. The volunteers rated the wines according to their stated price: the “cheapest” tasted cheap, and the most “expensive” was everybody’s favorite. But not only did the wine tasters report liking the pricier choices better, they also showed an increase in activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain that previous studies sug­gest might encode for the pleasantness of an experience.

Changing expectation by changing a marketing variable such as price can have a measurable effect on pleasure-related brain activity, says Antonio Rangel of the California Institute of Technology, an author of the study. But take note, marketers: the recipe may not be so easy—after all, now consumers know the trick.

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