60-Second Science

Price Can Make Wine Taste Better

Study subjects rated the same wine as tasting better when they were told it was more expensive. And their brains reacted differently to it when they thought it was pricier. Cynthia Graber reports.

You’d think we enjoy something based on its intrinsic qualities. Food should taste good because we its molecules tickle our tongues. But it’s much more complicated than that.

For example, one study has shown that knowing the ingredients and name brand of a beer can increase the drinker’s pleasure. What’s going on in our brains that allows that to happen?

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology recently investigated our neural response to these non-intrinsic stimuli. Twenty subjects tasted what they thought were five different wines. They were given the price for each. But in reality, there were only three wines. Two were offered twice, once at an alleged low price and once at a much higher price. And the subjects consistently said they enjoyed what they thought were expensive wines more.

A functional MRI showed that there was no change in activity in the taste centers of the brain when the subjects drank what they thought were costlier wines.  But the MRI also revealed increased activity in the brain’s pleasure centers.  So somehow our brains combine both the actual taste and what we expect about the taste—in this case that it’ll be better because it’s pricier.  In vivo veritas!

—Cynthia Graber

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