In the months since graphic anti-smoking warnings have appeared on Australian cigarette packaging in smokers have complained that the cigarettes don’t taste as good as they did before the health warnings.

According to The New York Times, “More than seven months have passed since Australia imposed one of the world’s toughest laws for tobacco warning labels, swapping iconic packaging for graphic images of mouth ulcers, cancerous lungs and gangrenous limbs. And though experts say it is too soon to know what impact the law has had on tobacco use, one thing is certain: Smokers think the cigarettes taste off. Complaints started to roll in about the flavor of cigarettes almost immediately after the law went into effect on December 1.”

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Scary health warnings are not new, but what’s interesting about the consumers’ complaints is that the tobacco and cigarette formulation did not change. The cigarettes that tasted good before the warnings now don’t taste as good, and the only thing that changed is the packaging. Can the exact same thing taste better or worse depending on its wrapping? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is yes.

It’s a psychological and perceptual illusion created by combining unpleasant images with pleasant cigarette taste. The influences happens because of what in psychology is called priming: creating an expectation that influences a person’s response to some stimuli.

Blind-taste studies have repeatedly shown that identical wines taste better when coming from expensive bottles, and tap water seen poured from an expensive brand-name bottle is claimed to taste better than tap water from the faucet. Our senses are subjective to some extent, and what tastes good to one person may taste bad to another; what one person hears as music another dismisses as noise.

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These influences are often subconscious; people aren’t aware that the $80 price tag on a bottle is making the wine inside taste better, and don’t realize that the photograph of the diseased lung on the cigarette packaging is making their cigarettes taste worse. But tobacco companies know it, and that’s one reason why they have fought against graphic warnings on their products.

How Expectations Influence Perceptions

One powerful influence on our perceptions is our expectations. Marketers and advertisers are well aware of this, and take advantage of it by designing packaging to make it most appealing to consumers. Venerable products that have been around for generations may get a modern makeover to appeal to a younger crowd who may not want to use the same products their grandparents did. In other cases, new products may be marketed as older if that perception may improve its appeal. For example television ads for Werther’s Original candies featured a grandfather offering the treats to his grandson. The ads (and even the name) are designed to imply that the candy is old-fashioned and has been passed down for generations—despite the fact that Werther’s Original candy was only introduced to America in the 1990s.

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In one wine tasting experiment published in the journal Appetite, “participants received (positive or negative) information about the wine prior to or after the tasting. When the information was given prior to the tasting, negative information about the wine resulted in lower ratings compared to the group that received positive information… Results suggest that the information about the wine affected the experience itself and not only participants’ overall assessment of the wine after the tasting.”

This effect can also be found in subtle ways in other contexts; we are more likely to enjoy a movie or restaurant if we have heard good things about it. Of course priming is only one of many influences, and the effects are neither strong nor universal. Not everyone who sees the graphic images on cigarette packs will find the tobacco tastes off, and many people who have heard good things about a movie or restaurant go with high expectations only to be disappointed. But images can and do influence us in ways we’re not aware of.

Image: A smoker lights up with a cigarette from the new Australian cigarette packaging. Credit: Corbis