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08.07.2007

The Power of the Label

Show me a wine lover that hasn't made a purchasing decision based on the label, and I'll show you someone who isn't being honest with themselves. We all know how much power the label has. Or at least we thought we did. But now some researchers from Cornell University have come along and shown us that we had no idea just how much power over our malleable little minds that slip of paper on the bottle can be.

Here's what they did. They gave people a free glass of wine with their dinner at a restaurant, and in so doing placed the bottle of wine on the table. For half of the folks, the label read "Noah's Wine, California." For the others it read "Noah's Wine, North Dakota." In both cases it was the same wine, but everyone who got the "California" wine reported that it tasted better, AND that their food tasted better too.

Just when you thought we were all gullible enough to enjoy wines more when we think they're more expensive, it turns out that we're so impressionable that our dinners taste better too. What's next? Better sex after a dinner where we think we're drinking better wine?

The notion that the perception of taste is anything close to objective continues to be undermined by studies like this one. If our enjoyment of a wine and the food we eat with it can be significantly influenced by something as simple as the label on a wine, how is it that some people can suggest that they actually know what anything really tastes like?

Here's a secret. When we taste wine, we're not really tasting it. When we smell wine, we're not really smelling it. No information actually passes from the world into our brains. We don't really perceive anything about wine. We are merely reacting to it in the same way that our bodies react when we accidentally brush up against a hot iron. The stimulus of contact with the outside world triggers the firing of countless neural pathways in the brain, and it is this activity, these structures of our nervous system, that produce what we experience as the sensation of taste, or smell, or sight, or the quick flinch that pulls our hand back from the iron.

Since the way that we perceive the world is determined not by the world outside, but by our own neuro-physiology, it stands to reason that it's pretty easy to hack the system.

Just because it stands to reason, though, it doesn't mean that it's easy to believe. We fool ourselves all day long into thinking that we are self-willed, independent thinkers who can easily do something like describe how a wine tastes without being unduly influenced by the context in which we tasted it.

Of course, we can also get too wrapped up in worrying about such influences to the point that it prevents us from doing or jobs or having a good time. And who knows, such influence could actually be a benefit. Certainly seems like the cheapest way to improve the quality of all our meals by 11%.

Read the full story. Thanks to Arthur for pointing me to the story.

Comments (18)

08.07.07 at 11:53 PM

Alder,

I read about this in the book Mindless Eating.

It does make one wonder about the "blind" magazine tastings where they know the region of the wine before they taste the wines. Are "up and coming" areas doomed to be given lower scores because knowledge of the region influences the critic? I suspect so, though I doubt any magazine critics agree with me.

Melanie wrote:
08.08.07 at 4:44 AM

Just goes to further prove that perception is reality...and ignorance is bliss. Ok, my cliche use for the day is complete. hehe. Anyway, interesting article, things like this fascinate me.

Dan Fishman wrote:
08.08.07 at 4:48 AM

I think there is a bit of a difference between taste perception and your example of the hot iron, because the iron is a reflex, which is usually controlled in the spine and never actually reaches the brain, whereas taste involves a complicated interaction of various regions of the brain.
As someone involved in psychological research, I think studies like this are interesting in that, as you say, they show that a system can be fooled, but they don't necessarily tell us about how the system works in general (e.g., in real life, the label is usually meaningfully related to the contents of the bottle). You could look at a study by Schooler & Engstler-Schooler (1990-keyword verbal overshadowing) that shows that describing wines leads people to make less consistent ratings--but only if they are not wine experts. Perhaps wine experts would be less likely to fall victim to this label bias as well.

08.08.07 at 5:50 AM

This is very interesting. A friend popped over and opened and drank one of the expensive French chards I'd been saving for a comparison tasting and admitted he'd done so a few hours later.
"Which chard?" I asked. "I don't remember, but from the label it didn't look like the expensive bottle." I kind of had to laugh.

Alfonso wrote:
08.08.07 at 7:39 AM

I hack my system with this quote from Wayne Dyer. "Everything in the universe has a purpose. Indeed, the invisible intelligence that flows through everything in a purposeful fashion is also flowing through you."

Cent'anni
Alfonso

Alder wrote:
08.08.07 at 8:37 AM

Derrick,

Certainly seems like that could be so. But we should also remember that a wine critic's perception of wines from various regions is probably extremely different from the lay public's. I would venture to say that the average American wine consumer (that is, the person who considers it a treat to order Turning Leaf Zinfandel in a restaurant with dinner) places a much greater "status value" on a wine being from California than from North Dakota. It seems possible to me that the wine critic may have tasted so much wine from everywhere that his or her preconceptions may actually be very different, and potentially less influential in a subconscious way than the average consumer, who only has a couple of basic judgements about a wine.

Alder wrote:
08.08.07 at 8:45 AM

Dan,

I'm no neurologist, but I have been reading about these things recently, and while you are correct that the reflex reaction doesn't actually reach the brain, while taste and sight do, my understanding is that they are both essentially the same operation of the nervous system, albeit different parts of it. In each case, stimulus from the outside triggers electrochemical activity in a network of nuerons, and the literal structure (how they are arranged, and the sequence in which they fire) of those neural interactons generates a response from our body. In the case of the hot iron, it is a rather short series of interactions that triggers the contraction of a muscle. In the case of taste, it is probably a more complex set of interactions that results in language (i.e. us telling ourselves a story about what we are "perceiving"), but it is just as structurally deterministic as the muscle reflex.

Arthur wrote:
08.08.07 at 10:23 AM

I have to take issue with two things here:

1. Study design: how many of these people in this study were qualified to make informed judgment on the wine? How many of them would know a high-end Napa cab from the 2-buck-Chuck used in the study if they were presented them blind?

All this only points to suggestivity of the average wine consumer and it underscores the difference between observation and interpretation. I agree with Dan Fishman that an experienced reviewer would be less likely to be fooled.

2 Alder, I disagree with your analogy of neurophysiology of sensation and perception. It fails to point out the distinction between observation and interpretation. By your logic, everyone should perceive the color cyan differently. Barring color blindness and other congenital issues, we all have the same types of receptors for vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. A little variation in receptor density and distribution (we really are all pretty identical in the whole scheme of things) is not the main difference in people's ability to interpret the sensory information. There is a central (yes, the brain) factor. That is the factor that allows some to have perfect pitch and others to be tone deaf. It also helps the more experienced to distinguish TCA from high levels of pyrazines in a Cab while others decide simply if they like the wine or not. In that way, our subjective reality is a product of our neurophysiology.

Finally, Dan and Alder, the heat-jerk response is not a reflex operation. There is central registration of much data involved in that circuit and it can be overcome by voluntary control. Much of what the general public calls a "reflex" actually is not. A true reflex is an involuntary response such as a muscle stretch reflex (sometimes erroneously called a deep tendon reflex), or the pupil constricting in response to increased light. This is relevant because there are those who are better observers than interpreters and vice-versa. The average consumer who sips a wine and decides is the latter. They don’t spend much time processing the components of the wine and just jumps to the judgment stage. They did not make wine a study and they do not look for the same things an informed expert does. It’s like hearing a piece of music and deciding if you like it or not: You don’t have to got to music school, have perfect pitch, be able to identify the components, key, scales, patterns, instruments etc to make the a decision –for your self. It doesn’t mean that you are not processing (or capable of processing) the information centrally. It just means that the tune (or the wine) sounded (or tasted) good to you. It does not mean it was a good piece of music (or a quality, well-made wine).

The average American Turning Leaf Zinfandel drinking wine consumer responds to a wine by deciding if they like it or not rather than analyzing its components. What this study points to, is that the average wine drinker will buy and accept just about anything that comes with the name of a desirable AVA on the label – no matter the quality. And the more status conscious among them will pay $100 and more for a bottle.

Alder wrote:
08.08.07 at 3:24 PM

Arthur,

But we DO all perceive Cyan differently! That's just the point I'm trying to make. While you may be correct that barring genetic or other deficiencies our "equipment" for perception is all largely the same, we each perceive the world in a unique way that is completely determined by our own personal neural structures, which have themselves been created through our repeated interactions with the world.

The fact that you and I can have a discussion and agree that the t-shirt you are wearing is blue is completely irrelevant. I might point out that there are cultures in which color perception is very different from ours -- for instance in certain cultures the color pink -- a mix between red and white -- does not exist as a concept, and those people will group pinks with white shades or with red shades, but will not distinguish them as a separate color. For them, pink literally doesn't exist.

Our color perception is not a function of us "correctly interpreting" some specific wavelength of light, as if there was some objective notion of color in the world. Our bodies don't know jack about the wavelength of light. The rods and cones in our eyes are stimulated by light, but what we "see" is solely the product of electro-chemical processes in our own bodies.

It is easy to prove this fact by holding up your hand in two crossing beams of red and white light. We perceive the shadow that is cast by our hand to be bluish green in color, but the wavelength of light that is bouncing off the area in shadow does not correspond to blue or green light at all. We are "seeing" not what is "actually there," but what our brain is structured to see.

All perception, including taste, works this way, to my understanding. Which is why it's not so hard to believe that other parts of our brains (e.g. our psychology) can so drastically affect perception.

Dan Fishman wrote:
08.08.07 at 4:34 PM

Hi Alder and Arthur,

Arthur: Sorry, had a feeling I might have been wrong about that reflex, should've looked it up...

Alder: I think that what you are saying about the fact that taste perception is result of a hugely complicated interaction between sensory input and neural processes is definitely true. The only thing that I would take issue with is that part where you say (two responses ago) that our reactions are structurally determined. This is definitely what some people think (e.g., Francis Crick, so you are in good company), but I think that we really don't understand the way the brain works nearly well enough to rule out the possibility that conscious thought may have some influence.

I would argue that the average person probably puts too little emphasis on factors that influence their experiences, including of taste, that are outside their awareness, but that at the same time the average psychologist puts too MUCH influence on these factors, ignoring idiosyncratic responses of individuals. This study is a perfect example of this, because we only know about the average response of a group of subjects, so we know nothing about how any one individual would respond to the differing wine labels. Since I'm sure you know many a wine expert, you should conduct your own study on them by switching around some labels....

Alder wrote:
08.08.07 at 4:58 PM

Dan,

In my understanding even conscious thought is structurally determined. Massively complex structure to be sure, but structural nonetheless. We cannot experience, think, imagine, anything that isn't created by the structure of our nervous system.

As for my wine-expert friends , blind tasting always shows that people's favorite wines aren't really their favorite wines !! We all love wines not just for their taste, but for a million other reasons that do not come into play during strict blind tasting.

Dan Fishman wrote:
08.08.07 at 5:14 PM

Hi Alder,

I think its true that conscious thought must be somehow realized in the neural structure of the brain, to me the open question is whether or not it is completely physically determined. I know that I am on very shaky ground to say that it might not be, but if it is, of course that rules out the possibility of free will, and I don't think anyone really understands the brain well enough to say that with certainty. I was hoping to point you to an interesting article by some colleagues of mine, but sadly it isn't published yet. It will be in a book called Psychology and Free Will, and it was about a study that showed that if you tell people that there is no free will due to structural determinism, they cheat more! Doesn't prove anything, but funny.

I really need to do more blind tasting. It will probably turn out that Peter Vella is my favorite "chablis" producer... I suspected it all along, of course.

Dan

Arthur wrote:
08.08.07 at 5:35 PM

Alder,

Let's back up: there's perception in the neurphysiological sense and there is perception in the psychological sense. I think you are lumping the two and in so doing, you are making a number of leaps I disagree with. There is observation (registration) of a stimulus by end receptors, transmission and then interpretation (recognition) at a brain level ('cold', 'sweet', 'red' or the sound of your telephone ringing). The definition of 'perception' you are using seems to be more the psychological one and you cannot extrapolate a reflex loop to a process that requires a number of association cortices in the brain.

My contention is that perception consists of observation and interpretation. Rods and cones register a light of a given wavelength and our brain interprets that, based on a set of reference data (experience), into 'color'. But this experiment seems to suggest that beyond observation (registration of a stimulus) and interpretation (recognition and making sense of it within the context of 'reality'), is this third element of judgment, of coloring those two things with opinion. This third element makes you cringe at the sight of a dog if the dog you once owned peed on all your furniture or if the neighbor's Doberman mauled you when you were a child.

If you have never encountered something, or your culture does not have a word or concept for it (the color pink, more than one "p" sound or 'l' and 'r' sounds being interchangeable, etc) you will respond based on past experiences (Foucault's Grid of Interpretation). A person may not have seen a cyan shirt before, but if they are presented a cyan color swatch followed by other shades of blue, they are likely to identify it the cyan again. Similarly, with enough exposure, a person who grew up to not distinguish 'l' and 'r' sounds will learn to distinguish "doll" from "door". That is the interpretation part of perception. Cultural associations (such as white = pure, good, virginal, etc and black = bad, evil, corrupt, ominous, etc OR pink = feminine and blue = masculine and California = generally good wine and North Dakota = probably not so good wine) lead us to a final judgment of what has been presented to us.

This third element, I think, is the core this experiment. It is based on cues and assumptions and feeds on a mix of lack of knowledge of wine and general human insecurity. Most people don't know much about wine and they don't know what makes a wine 'good'. But they do know what flavors they like - whether they are in line with what makes for a good quality wine or not. Many of these same people are very reticent to ask the most basic of questions about wine and decide it is better to smile and nod politely and go along with whatever is going on. It is human nature to not want to expose weakness or ignorance. So whether they liked the Charles Shaw Cabernet with a California Label or not, I think they felt the safer answer would be to say: the "California" wine was pleasing and to assume that the North Dakota label was inferior and if what they tasted was in line of their expectations, they said they did not like the wine.

And here we come to the issue of cues: How much of going out to eat is a ritual to many people? For how many people is the notion of gong to a restaurant associated with romanticism or a mystique? How much of having wine (ANY wine) with dinner is part of ambiance and romance of a meal - regardless of the quality of the food or wine? I think those cues led these participants (at the to make assumptions, judgments - to color the interpretation of what they just experienced.

"OK", you say, "what about those MBA students?" Well, a wine and cheese reception does not make for a wine club. But let's say these better educated, potential higher earners knew a thing or two about wine. Surely, they are immune to the power of suggestion.

Recently, I attended a private tasting event for a high profile producer. I was given a pour from a corked (it happens, no big deal) bottle (more than half empty) and pointed it out to the staff and the bottle was replaced. No big deal. Nobody before me said a word to the pourer. Attendees apparently were happy to stroll around the beautiful estate, rub elbows with all in attendance. (Judging by the makes of the cars in the parking lot and the amounts of money being laid down for the wines and the types of discussions going on, a lot of these people were not amateurs). They were also caught up in the excitement of strolling through the private sanctorum of the owners of the estate and sipping wines of various vintages.

Two Buck Chuck has been around only for a few decades, but this type of wine switcharoo (centuries old) is why restaurant servers give us the cork for inspection. I suppose one could argue this experiment reveals little new information.

Malcolm wrote:
08.09.07 at 9:13 AM

Arthur, Alder,
As someone who works in the wine trade this question (whether we are "tasting" the label or the wine) has frequently come up while trying the latest vintage of one of our wines against its competitor set.

Obviously the best way to do comparitive tasting is fully blind (and as Alder points out this sometimes gives surprising results) however the reality is that consumers usually pick your wine off the store shelf - where they have the choice of other wine labels as well.

I am not sure what the stats are for America but in the UK most wine is bought by women as part of the weekly grocery shop (with the average price being $8). Various studies have been made (and fortunes made on the basis of the evidence) that indicate that women choose their wine on the basis of how nice the label looks.

It is a small step from buying on the basis of the picture on the front (we now have French and Eastern European wines sold in the UK that are styling their labels so they look New World) to tasting on the basis of our expectations.

Arthur, your corked bottle at the tasting - I have had a couple of experiences such as yours. The first was when I worked a consumer tasting on my own. I confess I had been out the night before and had drunk rather more beer than I should have. My taste buds were not at their best and the first bottle of champagne did not taste quite "right" - but you have to remember my mouth felt like the bottom of a budgies cage. So (only having a limited amount of stock for the day)I carried on with it.

Everyone loved the champagne ("you can taste the quality", "very distinctive", "lovely stuff" etc). I opened the second bottle and it was fantastic lovely and bright. The first bunch of pretty educated consumers had been tasting a slightly corked bottle of grande marque champagne!

The second experience was at the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter a year or two ago - the winemaker and I opened his wines and tasted them and they were fine. When we had a couple of inches left in one bottle an Icelandic chap said rather diffidently "is this wine right?" We both tried it and it was absolutely shagged. The character had changed completely over half an hour. Indeed the wines that showed well on the first day did not shine on the second, and vice versa.

Our perception of a wine is not only dependent upon what is happening in our mouths but upon a whole range of cues. I am sure we have all enjoyed wines in some settings more than others - who does not have a fond memory of sitting on a sunny restaurant terrace on holiday drinking a cheap local wine and loving it (only to find it at home and have it not meet your expectations).

Malcolm wrote:
08.09.07 at 9:56 AM

Actually reading that post again I sound a bit sexist about female purchasing choices which was not my intention.

The majority of wine in the UK is bought by women and seperate studies indicate that women have a tendancy to buy wines based on the label. I did not mean to imply that women only buy on the basis of the label.

I have tasted most of the wines that my company sells on many occasions (both work and social). Seldom has a wine tasted the same time in, time out.

The number of variables that make the difference are part of the fun in my opinion. I think it is nice to always wonder what is going to be in the bottle as you pull the cork.

Stacy Nelson wrote:
08.11.07 at 8:46 AM

I think we're really dealing with two completely different yet related issues.

The first is that marketing works. There will never be any question that in the general non-wine-i-fied public the image is what sells. The best covers will always be picked up first. Companies spend fortunes in researching their image, sometimes more than they put into the product. We can be disgusted by it, but that's only because we're all victims of the 'prettier, shinier' mentality. It's been bred into us.

So the fact that with limited knowledge of wine, the one with the best label won out isn't really all that shocking.

Now the secondary issue is the subjectiveness of wine tasting. Take the wine out of the bottle and it's a glass of wine to be deconstructed in our noses and mouths. But unless we consistently taste in a vacuum, every time we taste the smells and flavors will differ due to one factor: our surroundings. Wine is a whole body experience. One wine opened up on the patio with a group of great friends will taste different from the same wine opened up by yourself at midnight as an act of salvation. I don't think that can be avoided no matter how experienced the palette.

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
08.13.07 at 2:08 PM

I am not sure but, if I recall the medical school classes I attened ( and taught for that matter ), I believe the word 'perception' is being misused. Sensation refers to the activation of receptors ( which are specific to a stimulus, to an extent, and always send the same information to the brain ) and perception is how the information is packaged for our use ( the brain plays a part ).
So in the case of 'seeing' the color red ( for normal people ) we all have the same receptors being fired ( wavelength is the variable ) but how it is percieved ( interpreted ) is what is different from person to person. To this end, we all have receptors to smell 'cherry' for instance but if someone has never smelled cherry ( or known it was cherry they smelled ) they perceive the smell as 'strange' if they percieve it as all. Each time we stick our nose in a glass of wine we are likely stimulating receptors by the thousands if not more, however we rarely attribute thousands of descriptors. Why? We may have sensed thousands of odors but we only percieve a few ( and go on to name them ). Tasting wine is actually analyzing wine which involves many high brain centers and goes far beyond simple 'perception'.
We are also ignoring the fact that neurons and thier connections are plastic in nature, they are constantly being changed due to the environment ( use vs disuse ). If one were to begin smelling 'cherry' and followed the odor to a tree in the back yard or a pie in the window the brain would in the future label the odor as 'cherry' ( perception ). The nature of the nerves sensing 'cherry' have not changed, the way the brain packages and organizes the information has.
Some recent research funded by the Oregon Wine Board and conducted by Weiden and Kennedy (top notch ad agency ) point out, that even in 'experienced' wine consumers, a wines label is the most important factor in driving a purchase. Though labels might be very important in determining if a wine is purchased or not it is still undetermined how this influences the consumers satisfaction ( rating ) with a wine.
What i think is most interesting about this experiment is how the information on the label led to not only the wine 'tasting' better but to the entire meal 'tasting' better. This is what wine marketing tries to do, at its core. Not only convince you that a specific wine tastes better than other but that EVERYTHING will be better if you purchase the right wine.

10.19.14 at 2:44 AM

Hi, Neat post. There's a problem with your website in internet explorer, could check this?
IE still is the market leader and a huge element of other people will
omit your great writing due to this problem.

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