Marketing Gets into Your Head

Date: 2010-04-29

You’re not alone. After all, expensive stuff is coveted—by definition. Otherwise, why would people pay exorbitant prices for things they really don’t need? 

Take wine, for example. On surveying a wine menu in a fancy bistro, you might be tempted to judge the quality of the wines by their price. And why not? The more expensive wines are probably better, and will likely be a tastier accompaniment to your tuna carpaccio. 

Now suppose that your usually cheap date orders an expensive bottle before you sit down, but you take a sip assuming that she chose her usual house red. Would you enjoy it more had you known that she made an uncharacteristic splurge? A new study led by Caltech Associate Professor of Economics Antonio Rangel (BS ’93) suggests that yes, the mere knowledge that a bottle is pricey can cause you to enjoy it more. 

In a paper published in the January 2008 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Rangel, postdoc Hilke Plassmann, Associate Professor of Psychology John O’Doherty, and Stanford Professor of Marketing Baba Shiv describe performing a little bit of trickery on a batch of study participants recruited largely from the Caltech community. “We advertised we’d pay people money for tasting wine—everybody was willing,” says Plassmann. During the study, participants were asked to sample five wines identified only by their price. 

Unbeknownst to the eager tipplers, however, two of the wines were the same but labeled with two different prices, one markedly higher than the other. For example, a $90 wine was presented sometimes as a $10 wine and other times at its true retail price. 

After tasting the wines, people were sometimes asked to evaluate either the intensity of the flavor or the pleasantness of the taste. It turns out that a $90 wine doesn’t taste nearly as good when you think that it costs $10. Both wines that were presented at two different prices were rated as more pleasant when identified with the higher price tag. However, the flavor intensity ratings, which acted as a control question, were not affected by the labeled price. Follow-up questions showed that participants truly believed that they tasted five distinct wines. 

Eight weeks after the initial study, participants were invited back to taste the wines again, this time without any price information. Not surprisingly, without the price tags, the difference between two samples taken from the same bottle disappeared. And this time, the wine people liked the most was actually the cheapest—a $5 bottle. 
“In marketing, people spend a lot of money to create brand associations in people’s minds, and establish a price-quality relation,” says Plassman, “and we know that it works. Marketing studies demonstrate that people perceive more expensive items as higher quality. But does it taste different, or do people rationalize? We didn’t know.” 

To answer this question, the researchers looked at what was going on in participants’ brains while they sampled the wines. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that takes a three-dimensional snapshot of activity throughout the brain at a rate of about once every two seconds. They compared brain responses to the wines presented as expensive to responses when the same wines were presented as less expensive, and found that the medial orbitofrontal cortex was more active when people tasted the more expensively labeled wine. This region is located above and between your eyeballs, and is involved in processing experiences we deem rewarding, like winning money and smelling food. Activity in this area was correlated with people’s expressed enjoyment of the wine, which tended to be greater the more expensive the bottle. 

This is not the first study to show that information culled from sources other than our noses and taste buds can influence our enjoyment of a smell or taste. An earlier study by an Oxford University research team led by Edmund Rolls tested the impact of labels on our perception of an odor. They gave participants a whiff of cheddar cheese while a computer monitor displayed either the words “body odor” or “cheddar cheese.” Not surprisingly, people preferred the scent labeled as cheese. Activity in both the orbitofrontal cortex and another region involved in processing emotional information, the amygdala, mirrored this preference. 

But this study is the first to show that marketing actions, in the form of hefty price tags, can have an effect on the brain. The authors propose that activity in the orbitofrontal cortex reflects a value that the brain assigns to the wine that combines information about its taste and its price. Activity levels are higher the more impressive the overall value, teaching the brain to make this excellent choice again. 

The brain’s propensity to integrate outside knowledge into what we think are internally generated opinions might make humans seem like dangerously manipulable creatures. But we evolved in social groups, so why not make use of the group’s wisdom when making decisions? If you are unable to ascertain the value of an item for yourself, integrating other people’s impressions into your judgment might not be a bad idea. 

Unfortunately, the wisdom of the group is not going to help you pay for that expensive bottle, or prevent you from indulging in regrettable trends. If your brain can trick you into thinking something tastes better than it does, could this explain those terrible ’50s food fads? Spam-and-fruit-cocktail gelatinized party loaf, anyone? —SB

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