Cheap Wine Tastes Better When You’re Told It’s Expensive

The placebo effect has long been known to influence belief, but researchers say they’ve discovered how the brain lights up when under its influence.

Business people have long known about the benefits of the placebo effect in marketing.

People consistently think expensive wine tastes better, for example, in the same way medical patients can benefit from sugar capsules that doctors say are migraine pills. Beliefs, in other words, can overrule our palates and pains.

Until recently, however, the cerebral mechanics of the placebo effect were unknown.

Now researchers at the INSEAD-Sorbonne University Behavioral Lab and the University of Bonn said they have discovered how the brain lights up when under the sway of the placebo effect, a potential step in figuring out how to train people to recognize when they are falling victim to this habit of human nature.

"Ultimately, the reward and motivation system plays a trick on us," said INSEAD post-doctoral fellow Liane Schmidt, the lead author of a study on wine and the placebo effect published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

Schmidt and others tested the reactions of 30 people drinking wine while lying down in a MRI machine.

The subjects sipped wine from a feeding tube, drank a neutral liquid to wash their mouths and then sipped more wine. The wine was always the same. But each sip was randomly assigned prices from around $3.50 to $21 a bottle to suggest to the drinkers that they were imbibing different quality wines. Each subject then could rate the wine according to scale of one to nine using a handheld device.

"As expected, the subjects stated that the wine with the higher price tasted better than an apparently cheaper one," said INSEAD business school professor Hilke Plassmann, a study co-author, noting that they also gave some study participants $50 in credit that limited how much they could try. “It was not important whether the participants also had to pay for the wine or whether they were given it for free."

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The ostensibly pricier wine activated the test subjects’ medial pre-frontal cortexes and their ventral striatum in the front of their brains. The former manages price comparisons – it’s making a judgement on whether the price is high or low, for example – while the latter regulates rewards and motivations.

"The reward and motivation system is activated more significantly with higher prices and apparently increases the taste experience in this way," said study co-author Bernd Weber, acting director of the Center for Economics and Neuroscience at the University of Bonn.

In the study, the scientists say their work could help others trying to figure out how beliefs can shape human perception and behavior.

“These findings provide novel evidence for the fundamental role that neural pathways linked to motivation and affective regulation play for the effect of informational cues on sensory experiences,” the researchers wrote.

The placebo effect isn’t always necessarily terrible, of course, but learning how to recognize it could be worth the effort, the researchers said.

"The exciting question is now whether it is possible to train the reward system to make it less receptive to such placebo marketing effects," said Weber. "This may be possible by training one's own physical perception – such as taste – to a greater extent.”

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