Science Fact: Consider taste bias: wine snobs are a favorite target of psychology researchers. After all, how sweet is it to show that someone who emotes about “terroir” and “cherry notes” can’t distinguish Margaux from Two Buck Chuck in a blind tasting?
But taste bias is more than snobbery. When people taste wines that are priced at $10 and $90 per bottle, the $90 wine tastes better, even though the sneaky researchers have poured identical wine into the two bottles. And the testers are not just saying it tastes better — brain wave scans show that the $90 wine activates the pleasure center of the brain. In other words, taste bias isn’t just snobbery, it also reflects what people are feeling.
How can this be? Here’s a clue: when you test people who know a lot about wine, they are less biased by the price or the name of the vineyard. The people with the greatest taste bias are casual wine drinkers, not true aficionados.
What appears to happen is that when a complicated decision needs to be made, our brains pull in all sorts of collateral information. The price or label or Wine Spectator rating may be irrelevant to the taste, but our minds seize on them for clues as to what it feels.
Wine isn’t the only party guilty of taste bias. The US Standards of Identity define vodka as “neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” In other words, tasteless grain alcohol. But a glance at the prices on a liquor store shelf reveals that there are lots of people who believe they can taste the difference between, say, Stoli Elit and Smirnoff. Organic food is another target for the taste bias snob police. When food is labeled organic, people report that it tastes better.
But we can also use taste bias to our advantage. The more we know about a product, the more pleasure we derive from it. So we don’t have to get that pleasure center buzz by depleting our bankroll — we can learn about grape types and different growing areas, compare wines by color, “legs” and aroma, and people who like wine believe that this kind of education makes taste bias work in their favor by providing bonuses in enjoyment.
Science Speculation: With a little imagination, we can extend taste bias far afield, into the realm of politics. Consider nuclear power generation, or global warming. Those are two topics that are complex and highly technical. It is simply not practical for a non-specialist, even a scientist, to acquire a deep and nuanced understanding of areas like this. Our eyes glaze over after the third table of data and we look for a way to encapsulate what we know, so we can file it away as something that’s “understood.”
And how do we choose what to think about such complicated topics? Through a form of taste bias: we consult sources we respect: public figures, media, friends and family. The fact that those folks may know less about the subject than we do doesn’t matter. Our brains pull together all the inputs on the subject and they tilt our perception. The price of the wine does not reliably predict its taste, but it’s a piece of data we have, so our minds use it. And what your Congressman says about atmospheric CO2 may be in left field, but our brains use that for input when deciding what to think about that subject.
It makes sense. Understanding the details of nuclear energy is unlikely to save your life, but bonding with friends and sharing their political positions can benefit you in many ways. So oversimplifying, with the help of taste bias, is not maladaptive — it’s a rational response to our human need to simplify the complex world around us, while at the same time building rapport with our closest friends.
Have you ever tested your taste bias with a blind tasting? How did you feel about the process and its results?
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US Standards of Identity for Vodka