Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Expensive tastes, and related matters.

Saw an interesting little study the other day that has much to say about the power of perception. Or about how stupid and materialistic we are. Or both.

The study, reported by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (after being run by equally prestigious Caltech), focused on wine-tasting habits. Researchers had 20 volunteers come in and taste what they thought were five different varieties of Cabernet ranging in price from $5 a bottle to $90 a bottle. In reality, the study used just three different wines. A $5 bottle was the source for the samples listed at both $5 and $45. The samples listed at $10 and $90 were both poured from the $90 bottle. The fifth wine retailed for $35 and was correctly identified as such in the study.

Guess what. Right down the line, the volunteers' subjective enjoyment of the wine escalated along with the alleged price. They liked the "cheapest" wine least and the "costliest" wine best. This wasn't just lip service, either: The Caltech researchers hooked the volunteers up to MRIs, and noted a stepped-up response from the brain's pleasure centers as the tasters tasted progressively "more expensive" wines.

Though one doesn't want to jump to all sorts of unwarranted conclusions, there's no mistaking the implications for the wider subject of mind-over-matter—and hence, for this blog. If thinking that something is "better" makes it seem better, then maybe all this money people throw into self-help isn't such a waste after all. That's the emotional way of looking at it. (You'll notice from my poll question that I'm exploring the dichotomy of emotion vs. intellect these days.) On the other hand, there's no denying that this feeling of "better," in the wine study, was fraudulently obtained. The $90 wine was exactly the same as the $10 wine. If that test were translated into buying habits, people would be overpaying ten-fold. And that's the rational way of looking at it.

So. Should we be concerned about this? Should we try to educate consumers out of such foolish elitism? Or is the enhanced pleasure all that matters, in the end?

Consider, also: Most of us on this blog think The Secret and its mantra of attracting happiness is pretty damn silly—out of conformity with everything we know to be true about the physical world. But if people who subscribe wholeheartedly to the law of attraction simply feel better going through life that way, then even if it's one colossal load of steaming b.s....who are we to judge?

One last thing to consider before you answer: Why draw the line at the personal here? Why not extend it into the social/political? If you think about it, the crux of the issue is a clash between knowledge and illusion; the question becomes, whether it's really best to shatter the illusions if the truth is going to take away your happiness and/or peace of mind. So, for example, wouldn't we be happier as a nation, and feel more optimistic about life these days, if we knew less about the goings-on in Iraq? Maybe Washington should spin everything it tells us, and tell us only so much in any case*; maybe U.S. reporters shouldn't have been allowed in to begin with, and the government should also censor all news that arrives from the likes of the BBC and Al Jazeera. Maybe we should all live in Lake Wobegon, or think we do....

A toast, then, to rosé-colored glasses! From the $90 bottle, of course.

* Cynics would say that's already the case.


RevRon's Rants said...

"But if people who subscribe wholeheartedly to the law of attraction simply feel better going through life that way, then even if it's one colossal load of steaming b.s....who are we to judge?"

If ignorance is bliss, does it follow that ignorance is the highest human aspiration? Carrying this logic a bit further, the most noble goal of a teacher would be to pass all students with an "A," so that they might have better opportunities in their professional endeavors.

The flaw in that logic is that, at some point, the individual will actually have to put into practice what they have learned. One who goes through life swaddled in comfortable illusion will inevitably confront a reality that will strip them of that false raiment, and those who have been party to the perpetuation of the illusion will bear no small portion of responsibility for the individual's pain.

If life presents ever more challenging tests (which I believe to be the primary function of our human existence), those who sell cheat sheets will ultimately be recognized as evil opportunists when their "customers" ultimately realize how unprepared their "teachers" left them.

Steven Sashen said...

Penn & Teller, on their Showtime show Bullshit, did a similar test, except every wine came from the same $5 box.

And the question your raise is a classic in philosophical history: Is there a difference between happiness based on a falsehood and that based on the truth?

I don't propose to have an answer, but I can tell you that on more than one occasion I have (faux) apologized to my wife, saying, "Sorry I'm not stupid enough to believe in things like The Secret -- if I had the ability to believe in and then sell feel-good lies, you would be living in a MUCH bigger house."

(Lucky for me, she prefers me without magical thinking.)

Actually, though, when I think back to the times I was under New Age hypnosis, I typically remember the pleasantness of the hopeful mythology and discount the stress -- both emotional and financial -- that trying to actualize that mythology cost me. A classic neuro-cognitive bias of remembering things better than they were.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I know you pose the question as a rhetorical whose "obvious" answer is a resounding no, but I gotta tell ya, surveying the American scene these days, I sometimes think that yes, ignorance is the ultimate aspiration.

And Steven, from that same P/T series, except in this case, the one on bottled water: Among my favorite images is that of a gleefully maniacal Teller, out behind the restaurant, next to the dumpsters, pouring water from a garden hose into the various bottles that the "water steward" would then describe to unsuspecting diners with such pretentious, hifalutin poesy. You remember that one?

RevRon's Rants said...

Given current trends, I'd have to agree that ignorance seems to be the highest aspiration of a depressingly high percentage of people. However, it is my belief that ignorance is a terminal state, and that the pain resulting from the inevitable emergence from that state increases exponentially to the amount of time and energy invested in its perpetuation. What might once have been an "Ah-ha!" moment becomes a profound "Oh, sh**!"

The choice is ours to make, whether to emerge as quickly as possible, or to delay the awakening and exacerbate the pain of disillusionment. Likewise, the compassionate individual will strive to offer others the means to avoid such a blow.

a/good/lysstener said...

I hate to use this word because it's become a cliche in its own right, but I think there's something to be said for "balance." Though when I read your book I agreed with most of what you said, especially about the money the gurus make my deceiving people, most of us do need to think there's more to life than there is, if we're going to get through the day without going insane. Your reach has to exceed your grasp and all that. Maybe the key is the setting. Clearly we don't want to have illusions about national policy, but I think other types of illusions like the ones in the wine tasting are harmless. IF the people can afford to waste the extra money on wine, then who's hurt by this? It's their money. Look at the money most guys waste or their cars instead of just settling for basic transportation!

One thing I notice you do, Steve, is you take all arguments to the extremes, and I'm not sure that's a valid way of looking at life. (There's a name for it in logic but it escapes me at the moment.) It's like when somebody talks at the movies and they make it out to be such a crime by saying "imagine if everyone did that." But everyone doesn't do that. You could use the same argument with doctors or lawyers or anything else: Imagine if everyone decided to become a doctor. If everyone did *anything* society would fall apart at the seams. My point is that you can't always analyze everything in terms of the most extreme forms of it. I don't think in this case you can compare wine tasting to Iraq. That's why I don't really see Ron's analogy either, because he does pretty much the same thing.

Anonymous said...

There was also the blind taste test that matched Smirnoff vodka against an array of expensive brands. The Smirnoff won every test, and the results were widely publicized, yet I haven't noticed a decrease in the ranks of expensive vodkas on my liquor store's shelves. I guess people really believe they get what they pay for! Maybe it's time to raise my hourly rate...

As for the ignorance is bliss bit, I don't think it's so much an issue of feelings vs. intellect as it is one of feelings vs. conscience. For example, my feelings after seeing "The Matrix" were that if I were in that situation and could dream a rich, full, fulfilling life, or live the waking nightmare that was reality, please God, give me the dream! In that case, I failed to see how perceiving the real situation was helpful, since machines or no machines, the situation was beyond redemption. Humans would simply be left to sit in the darkness and bewail their stupid, world-destroying ways. In a situation where knowledge could effect positive change, however, I'd be for knowledge over illusion/delusion. But I have a feeling RevRon would choose knowledge in both cases as the morally correct option, which, no doubt, it is...

Steve Salerno said...

Good points, Anon. The obvious fly in the ointment--in your proposed hypothetical about a case where "knowledge could effect positive change"--is that it presumes fore-knowledge about the ultimate impact of the knowledge. Which is something we can't have until the scene plays itself out. So the whole thing becomes sort of circular, no?

Btw, if you are indeed the same Anon who mentioned last time that you seldom got validation here, we thank you again for sticking around.

Anonymous said...

Oops, forgot to add that I recently saw large blocks of cornmeal mush on sale at my local farmers' market for about a dollar a block, and couldn't help but wonder what a block would have brought if it was being sold as polenta!

Anonymous said...

Yes, good point, Steve, and you're quite right. Guess I'd better knock off thinking for the day and head for that bottle of $90 rose!

RevRon's Rants said...

Alyssa - I see no deep and enduring harm in people fooling themselves into paying more for a bottle of wine, since - despite what some wine connoisseurs might posit - drinking wine is a fairly insignificant endeavor. The rules change dramatically when individuals are duped into wasting their spiritual energies on a hoax.

In my belief system, we aren't here in human form primarily to excel in our abilities to discern between different confections. We're here to learn and develop emotionally and spiritually. The person who dupes another into spending more money by convincing them that their confection is better than it actually is might be acquiring something like negative Karma for their deception, but I hardly believe their "crime" can appropriately be equated to that of leading another to abandon the quest for genuine spiritual growth in favor of what is obviously an illusion.

IMHO, the attempt to rationalize the latter by equating it to the former is ludicrous. If "everybody did that," we'd be eternally doomed to living in a wine-besotted fairy tale. :-)

RevRon's Rants said...

Anon - Moral correctness runs a distant second to - and is borne of - judiciousness. If I were allowed to choose between living in blissful illusion or struggling with reality, I would choose the latter, not because of some moral imperative, but rather because I accept that I'd have to deal with reality at some point, and I'd just as soon not waste time and spiritual energy avoiding it. A genuinely "moral" approach is always the most reasonable one, especially if we look beyond the shadow of acute prejudices.

RevRon's Rants said...

Considering it further, I don't think it's a stretch to assert that abandoning one's self to a life of blissful illusion is tantamount to committing intellectual, emotional, and/or spiritual suicide. And those who perpetuate the illusion - especially for their own material gain - are, in effect, the purveyors of intellectual hemlock.

If one believes in reincarnation, they may well consider such an act even more egregious than physical suicide, since terminating one's physical life at least leaves the essence (soul, spirit, or whatever one chooses to call it) available for a subsequent incarnation, without wasting additional time and energy in a life shrouded in folly.

We may not know with certainty the answers to "what happens next," but I feel it is our responsibility to try and act well in the present which we *do* know about. Hiding behind illusion is, therefore, patently irresponsible, IMHO.

roger o'keeffe from nyc said...

Maybe Alyssa will accuse me of being hopelessly out of balance, but I for one can't see the justification for ever intentionally giving in to illusion, fraud, self-deception or related phenomena. How can you ever truly enjoy something if you can't put your full faith in its authenticity? Besides, what kind of prescription is that for approaching life in the overall?

Steven Sashen said...

I loved the "bottled water" section of P/T's show, too... especially since most bottled water *is* just city tap water.

Maybe we could resolve this discussion if we could do a similar experiment, sort of a consciousness Coke/Pepsi test:

Serve a plate of "ignorance bliss", then a plate of "truth bliss" and see if the diners can tell the difference and/or have a preference.

Your PR Guy said...

Ya'know there was a similar study, albeit unscientific, done on bottled vs. tap water. The results: people couldn't tell the difference in taste. Is it perception or reality, I don't know.

But I do know that perception shapes our reality. How we make sense of things affects how we react to them.

Tony M. said...

As people have noted, these types of "tests" have provided many guffaws for viewers. Do these tests prove that people enjoy wine based on price and not on taste, though? Or do they point to something else?

I think that these tests point to something else. Something that is not addressed by any of these researchers. What the researches fail to address is the idea that people, when confronted with the unknown, will feign knowledge rather than claim ignorance.

How many people have actually drunk a $100 bottle of wine? Or enjoyed haute cuisine? Or know enough about classical music to actually discern an excellent recording from a lackluster performance?

The answer is few.

Thus, when they are confronted with an "expensive" wine, even though it may not taste better than the $10 bottle, they will believe that they are missing something because of their lack of expertise. Instead of declaring what they think and risk making a fool of themselves, they feign knowledge and "enjoy" the expensive wine more. Would a wine aficionado have the same enjoyment? They would not because they have knowledge of wine and are familiar with what a $100 wine tastes like.

The same holds true with the other items I mentioned: haute cuisine and classical music. A $100 a plate meal may seemingly cause some people to enjoy it more, but how much of that is ACTUAL enjoyment as opposed to puffery? I contend that it is puffery - the person is claiming enjoyment so as not to appear ignorant.

The reverse is also true: How many people proclaim "I don't watch a lot of TV" when the truth is that they watch their fair share or even the national average? Why would a person do this? They do this so as not to appear ignorant, which, in this sense, means that they are not of the "TV watching" crowd - the illiterate, slobbering masses.

My point is that while these tests make for great episodes of BULLSH!T! and that it is funny to watch people fooled like this, it means little to their actual enjoyment nor to their belief in the illusion of price. These tests merely illustrate that people are insecure when they are removed from their element, and when confronted with the unknown, they would rather pretend to be "in the know" rather than appear uninitiated.

Anonymous said...

Tony raises a very interesting point. It would be telling to watch a group of 'wine snobs' or gourmets at one of these tests, as opposed to the general public. From my observation of classical music cognoscenti, I believe that they could easily discern a fine performance, so I'm excluding them from the testing, but I'll admit that I'd rather enjoy watching a group of art critics rating supposedly fine paintings that were schoolyard discards vs. 'trash' art that was done by masters. And the same for so-called literary critics! (But I'm not bitter.)

Anonymous said...

My view is the same as Tony M.s Wine experts were not questioned and they would know the difference between a $100 wine versus $10 wine. The average joe probably does not drink enough wine to know the difference so what is the point of doing a test on them? It would be something if they had used wine experts for this test and gotten these results though.

Most people hate to appear unknowledgable or, heaven forbid, wrong about anything. These tests just highlight how insecure people are, not how gullible they are.

RevRon's Rants said...

Insecure or gullible, the emperor is still naked as a jaybird, and the tailor is making money off the marks. So which is worse; to exploit someone's stupidity, or their desperation?

Steve Salerno said...

I too think Tony raises an interesting point--and a possible alternate explanation for what we saw in that study--but in the end, it's an explanation that, to me at least, doesn't change the fundamental issue here. And I'll tell you why by way of a question: How many people have the kind of discerning palate that would enable them to rise to the level of an "expert" in differentiating among wines?

I'm reminded of a discussion I had with an expert in home audio/home theater systems. In exchange for my promise never to divulge his name, since he works for one of the major retailers of high-end audio and could get in a lot of trouble for saying this, he confessed to me that "probably only one person in 100 can tell the difference between the $400 home theater system that's 'good enough' and the $4000 high-end system that so many people feel they just have to have." For the 99% of us in that latter category, then, the added $3600 is a total waste of money. Except for whatever intangible, snob-value benefits we reap out of simply owning, and showing off, a high-end system. ("Hey, check out my new home theater system. Believe me, you don't even wanna know how much it set me back....")

Bottom line, does Tony's point, right or wrong, really matter for the great mass of us who have trouble telling the difference between beaujolais and bat urine?

Anonymous said...

Steve, your comment reminds me of the time I went to an audio store to buy a replacement for my stuttering-towards-extinction car CD player. Bear in mind that this store only sold audio systems for vehicles. The clerk enthusiastically showed me a system with bazillion flashing lights, then rather reluctantly showed me a plainer system for hundreds less. Music matters to me, and I was willing to ante up for the best sound, so I asked the salesman, pointing to the expensive model, "Is the sound really better?" he looked stunned by my question. "Well, no," he finally said. "But it looks really cool!"

Anonymous said...

Somebody's clearly missing a marketing opportunity here. I recently read a piece about how wines with animals on the labels outsell all other by many orders of magnitude (ostensibly to those of us who are partial to kangaroos and digging dogs on our bottled bat urine). Admittedly, Bacardi has the bat image sewn up, but maybe Dracula's still available?

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Interesting question you pose. Are you just throwing that out there? Or do you lean in one direction?

That's a fascinating question, in fact: Is it worse to exploit the stupid or the desperate?

(Sounds like a new soap opera: The Stupid and the Desperate.)

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, I find the exploitation of *anyone* to be repulsive. The reasons for their being vulnerable targets are, IMHO, irrelevant. That they are being taken advantage of is all that really matters; that, and the fact that there are those willing to fleece them.

Anonymous said...

I myself thought that RevRon's "wine-besotted fairy tale" sounded like a wonderful start for a novel, but then decided that many previous writers had come to that conclusion on their own...

Cal said...

Although I'm late to this, I do wonder about the subject all the time. I am a news junkie, but it is depressing at times. The local news always leads with a murder. The national news or cable is always about somebody missing or the problems with the country, etc. I do wonder if I manage to pull myself away, i.e, abstain from watching or reading the news, will my disposition change. Because none of these things I can do anything about personally. And the Internet is great on many things, but the potential to spend an enormous amount of time on worthless endeavours goes up dramatically.

It kind of reminds me of one of Stephen Covey's mantras -- I don't have his "Seven Habits" book in front of me -- but it was basically only spend time doing the things you can control. That's one thing I think he is right on.

It's funny, because Beth Lisick indicated in her NPR interview that his latest book, The Eight Habit, is longer than the Seven Habits. But Covey's company also owns Executive Book Summaries, which provides a one-page summary of business-related books. So you can either buy the book from his company, or skip that and buy the summary.

Steve Salerno said...

What I find most striking about this line from your comment, Cal--"the potential to spend an enormous amount of time on worthless endeavours..."--is that it so perfectly captures the essence of writing itself, at times. But those of us who have the calling (or the curse?) just can't seem to stop.

Anonymous said...

"enormous amount of time on worthless endeavors"
I thought about this the other night concerning the Internet. I should be finishing a project for a deadline, but instead I am reading blogs, participating in blogs, or watching YouTube. After I am done, I feel like I ate a ton of candy that is probably not good for me.

The Crack Emcee said...

The danger in believing in nonsense is that people act on their beliefs and, when those beliefs are exposed as bogus, the backlash is frightening.

I have a natural inclination to see the world without blinders and, regarding wine, have always known the industry is based on elitism. My experiences in France, where I never saw anyone turn away a bottle, only confirmed that it's a delusional enterprise from start to finish: Say it's "the best" and they'll buy it.

P&T's dissections of bottled water, recycling, Fung Shui, and New Age beliefs are classics. Penn on New Agers:

"They make you just want to smack 'em!"

My feelings exactly.

Steve Salerno said...

I think CMC makes an excellent subordinate point here that may, in its own way, outweigh the larger issue. In my experience, too, people who are heavily invested in myth (over)react with an extraordinary venom when you challenge them on what they believe. And CMC and I aren't alone in that perception; this was, in fact, the major thrust of Barbara Ehrenreich’s wonderful piece about "the tyranny of hope" in Harper's a year ago at this time. You see, people who are rational value objectively meaningful evidence, so they're willing to admit evidence to the contrary. What they prize above all is reason and proof. People who, instead, essentially believe in belief are willing to make no such concessions. If you question their premise, you are in effect questioning their entire value system. Such as it is.

The one quibble I have with CMC is his use of the term "exposed as bogus." He and I have been down this road before, and I tend to prefer such concepts as "agree to disagree." I don't think the fact that I think A and you think B means that my A is necessarily The Right and True Path, and your B is bogus.

Anonymous said...

Thousands of years of religious wars, schisms, and so on certainly proves that point, doesn't it? Vulnerability generates fear; fear generates anger; and anger generates verbal and physical assault. What a crime that our highest values so often cause our lowest behavior! If only people of faith would take their cues from their founders' behavior rather than their current leaders. They didn't call Jesus the Prince of Peace for nothing!

I do have one issue with your statement about rational people prizing proof. If quantum physics and other modern-day discoveries have shown us nothing else, it's that proof is a slippery concept. Instead, I'd say that rational people prize reason and logic--and civilized behavior, whatever one's views.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve - As you know, we've experienced the venom when we've challenged "believers," but no more so than when we've even politely disagreed with the supposed "non-believers" and self-proclaimed skeptics. Case in point was a dialog on another discussion forum where we mentioned that the medical community had acknowledged the efficacy of acupuncture in treating some ailments. You'd think we'd set the "rational thinkers'" children on fire!

I think the tendency to be abrasive has more to do with how insecure the individual is in their beliefs than with the nature of the beliefs themselves. Those who are truly comfortable in their beliefs don't seem to feel the need to attack those with whom they disagree.

The Crack Emcee said...

Yea, yea, blah, blah, blah,..(LOL)

Steve Salerno said...

That is an equally good point, Ron. I did not mean to imply that all "rationalists" are created equal. In part, that's why I begged to quibble with CMC's use of the phrase I picked out; though all of us take positions in life--I sure took one in my book!--I'm not sure that any of us is qualified to say in some overarching, meta-truth sense whether a given idea (especially a complex one) is just plain "bogus."

RevRon's Rants said...

IMHO, The real problem is with myopic "believers" on both sides of the equation.

If one's beliefs are based solely in details that can be quantified, those beliefs are restricted to that which current knowledge can explain, and are therefore limited. Insistence upon adhering to a limited sphere of knowledge is no different from ignorance; it's just a matter of degrees.

By the same token, the blind acceptance of what "might be," even when such acceptance flies in the face of common sense, is really a commitment to live life in a fairy tale, no matter how sophisticated its plot line might be.

The Crack Emcee said...


Um, I hate to say this (Man, do I hate to say this) but there has been no - I repeat: no - proof that acupuncture does diddly-squat. It was spun that way in the media, I know, but, so far, there's nothing to back it up. The latest studies found they got the same results from sham acupuncture as "real" acupuncture, so - tah da - we're back to our old friend, the placebo effect. The only important news was that, since the sham was as good as the "real", we know (for sure) the basis for acupuncture (qi) doesn't exist. And, unlike the Gospel, that's truly "good news".

As far as the rest of it goes, I've got to words for you:

Occam's Razor.

And I'm out.

RevRon's Rants said...

What you probably should have said is that there has been nothing sufficient to prove it to *your* satisfaction, which brings altogether different factors into the equation. Several different researchers here at Baylor - among many others around the world- have come to a wholly different conclusion. As a matter of fact, the acupuncturist I use is frequently given referrals by physicians at Baylor.

As to the existence of qi, well, that depends upon what you choose to believe. Simply put, we disagree. And I'm not interested in getting into another of your pissing contests about it.

I've got two words, as well:
Vonnegut's badges :-)

Anonymous said...


I conclude from this study that thes people knew very little about wine and/or started to drink it in their mature years (above 18).

Actually, the more educated wine-drinker knows one thing:
The probability of wine to be good is deoendent on the way it has been produced, whom and where.

What you say about price is funny though, all the more since that in prestigious restaurants the menu given to the lady does not show price tags;-))) She is supposed to feel comfortable and not worry about prices... Though a perfect lady would adjust her choice if necessary;-))

Vanessa From Paris

Steve Salerno said...

In France they still give the women menus without prices? Here in the U.S., I can't say I've been in a truly prestigious restaurant in a while (I'm guessing Outback doesn't qualify), but I thought that practice went out with the rise of feminism anyway.

Hell, I wouldn't mind feeling more comfortable in a nice restaurant, myself. I'd even be willing to "adjust my choice," as long as someone else is picking up the tab. :)

The Crack Emcee said...

I've had the "privilege" of drinking a $100.00 bottle of wine many times - $500.00 bottles even - and it's all bullsh*t. As the founder of Two Buck Chuck says, there's no bottle of wine that's worth more than $10.00, except in people's cultish minds. (They see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, etc.)

I find it all really sad. Somehow, I grew up thinking Americans were more discerning than they appear to be, these days anyway. Of course, being raised by the children of slaves (much older than the average parents) I blame Boomers for our current culture not being as value-oriented as I was raised to believe we were. They want to be like the french or whatever, looking outside of American values for valedation, and just screwing everything thing up here.

That's my take on it anyway.