Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Placebo connoisseurship

By Michael O'Hare

Stephen Dubner does a gloss on the now familiar finding that we enjoy stuff for reasons far removed from the stuff’s intrinsic properties.  His angle is that you will enjoy wine more if you know you paid more for it.  I first came upon this proposition many, many years ago, around the time that Philip Morris bought Miller, found that it had the favorite beer of people who didn’t drink much beer – Grandma on special occasions – and repositioned it with sports figures. A stock analyst I met who followed beer companies shared some wonderful anecdotes, mostly illustrating the insistence of mass-market brewers that their beers taste alike and boring, because they are very good at selling beer by image and associations, but find taste hard to handle and unpredictable. [Wine is a little more complicated, as are craft and specialty beers.  My favorite part of the wine story is how the white coats at UC Davis taught the world how to make really good, cheap wine; one of the greatest successes, in terms of net consumer and producer world-wide value created, in the history of government research.]

If you want to spoil an evening, or win some easy money, or maybe get punched in the nose, propose to folks who demand a certain brand of American lager (Budweiser, Coors, Miller, etc) that they cannot pick out their favorite brand in a blind test.  This works even better with vodka, whose legal definition is “grain neutral spirits [that's ethanol and water] without distinctive taste or odor”.  In fact, I’ve been told very few people can distinguish bourbon, scotch and brandy in a blind test (!) – don’t even think about picking your 21-year-old single malt from among a couple of shot glasses of  Chivas -  but haven’t tried this one.

The effect is comparable to the placebo effect in medicine; it’s real, but it doesn’t work unless you lie to the patient about what you’re doing. So the obvious strategy for your friends is for you to buy a bottle each of  really expensive liquors, and decant whatever’s on sale this week into them.  If they see you pouring out of the expensive bottle, they will enjoy their libation as much as they would if you served them the real stuff.  The problem is, what do you do for yourself?  Does knowing that it’s mostly the illusion of price that makes you enjoy something allow you to learn to take pleasure in something cheap and known to be so?  Can you teach yourself to enjoy more for less by doing your own blind tests and noting the results? [The RBC officially deplores driving lit even if you got stewed in the service of research; do this at home.] I myself have pretty much given up learning about wines except in very broad categories, because I never get served anything that tastes like plonk and always enjoy what’s put before  me.

Important: I wish to assure my friends that I absolutely would never dream of doing the deceptive bottle trick myself: anything you’re offered in my home is exactly what it claims to be.  Boy Scout’s honor, absolute vow of truth, trust me, I’m really not kidding here, may my thumb cleave to the ball of my mouse, and my capslock key activate itself randomly when I’m typing passwords, and like that.

Cross-posted from The Reality-Based Community.