Higher price makes cheap wine go down smoother

March 23, 2021
Do you think expensive wine tastes better? (Unsplash/Vince Veras)

Do you think expensive wine tastes better? (Unsplash/Vince Veras)

Inexpensive wine could be nicer than you think, at least if someone lies to you about how much it cost: In a realistic field experiment, researchers who deceived participants about the price of wines discovered that budget wine tasted better when it was presented as expensive.

In the study, published March 9 in Food Quality and Preference, the researchers gave out three types of wine at a public event, "Uni Nacht," on the campus of the University of Basel in Switzerland. One wine was inexpensive and unrated by experts. The second had a middling price and expert rating and the third was expensive and very highly rated.

The team recruited 140 Nacht-goers, who drank six glasses of wine in randomized sequences. Three glasses contained the trio of wines, but with no price information whatsoever. In a fourth glass, the middling wine was always presented with its real price. The fifth and the six glasses, however, were trickier. The cheapest wine was sometimes priced accurately and sometimes quadrupled in price. Similarly, the costliest wine was either priced accurately or reduced to a quarter of its retail listing. After drinking the wines, participants rated their pleasantness and intensity on scales of 1 to 6.

The results were striking.

"If we looked at pleasantness — so, how much the people liked the wine — then pricing had quite an effect," Jens Gaab, a psychology professor at the University of Basel and an author of the paper, told The Academic Times. "The cheapest wine, given with a very high price, increased in pleasantness, but the high-priced wine didn't change. So, you can sell a very expensive wine as cheap and it still tastes the same, but if you sell a cheap wine as very expensive, it's perceived as much more pleasant."

"Interestingly, pricing did not have an influence on the intensity," Gaab added. "There was a linear relationship. The cheapest wine was not as intense as the middle, which was not as intense as the most expensive one."

Gaab wonders whether wine experts take intensity into account when ranking wines. "Maybe professional wine tasters just go for intensity because you can't fake that — you can't change that by pricing," he said. "It seems to be quite a real indicator of something. But the question is, of what? Is a more intense wine better than another wine? In the end, it's a subjective rating."

Gaab says he was inspired by the psychologist Irving Kirsch's work on the placebo effect of antidepressant medication. "It's not just medication — it's everything," he said.

Gaab wanted to see if other contexts could be manipulated to shape our perceptions. "We did a study on art in a museum," He said. "We gave different information about a piece of art in a real museum. Interestingly, that did not change the perception of art — so art seems to be real."

This latest investigation builds on the brain scanning research of neuroscientist Hilke Plassmann, who found that we believe pricier wines are more pleasant, even if the wine is actually cheap. But Plassmann carried out her research in a laboratory; participants drank the wine through a plastic tube while sitting in an MRI machine. 

Gaab and his colleagues wanted to see how price impacted pleasantness in a more realistic setting — hence "Uni Nacht." "We were the only ones giving out alcohol — I think they were all sober when they came up," said Gaab. "The testing environment we had, which was a booth in a very crowded university building, maybe wasn't that ideal, but on the other hand, maybe it was rather realistic when it comes to wine tasting."

Unlike Plassmann, this team could not repeatedly test wines. "We used one day," said Gaab. "And we were not able to give all wines with all prices to all people. It would have been nice to manipulate the conditions in a better way, but that would have meant that one person would have been drinking up to a bottle of wine, and then they would have been drunk. We couldn't risk that." Still, the team's results were basically in agreement with Plassmann's.

Gaab wonders how the study would have gone if they had compared three comparably intense wines. He has also thought about comparing wine experts with non-experts.

Interestingly, older people tended to give lower rankings than younger people. But the relationship was relatively weak and runs contrary to earlier research. "It was a minor effect," Gaab said, noting that it could be a statistical artifact.

The study could have troubling implications for wine drinkers, as it implies that companies could mark up cheap products and consumers would be none the wiser. "I would guess the wine industry is aware of these impacts," Gaab said. "It would be interesting to see the breaking point, where increases in price do not lead to increases in selling. Is there a point where it becomes implausible to do this?"

When it comes to interpreting his findings, Gaab recalled Albus Dumbledore's words to Harry Potter: "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why should that mean that it is not real?"

The study, "Price information influences the subjective experience of wine: A framed field experiment," published March 9 in Food Quality and Preference, was authored by Christoph Patrick Werner, University of Basel and The University of Sydney; Johanna Birkhaeuer, Heike Gerger, Nadja Heimgartner, and Jens Gaab, University of Basel; Cosima Locher, University of Basel and Plymouth University; and Ben Colagiuri, The University of Sydney.

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