The Power of Price


Can the price of a bottle of wine affect how we perceive its flavour? Neuroscience says yes!

It’s long been known that consumers can be tricked into rating a cheap wine as more flavoursome by claiming it costs more. But until recently, it wasn’t known whether this prejudice blinded them to the actual taste or whether the taste they perceived was indeed altered by changes in brain activation.

If the results of a recent study – which appeared in the American Marketing Association Journal – are anything to go by, it may be the latter. Our preconceptions of how a food or drink product should taste might actually be altering the neurophysiological reaction to the wine and thus, leading to this skewed perception.

By placing subjects in an fMRI machine whilst they tasted wine – amongst other things – authors Hilke Plassmann (INSEAD) and Bernd Weber (University of Bonn) found that subjects showed significant effect of price and taste prejudices; both in how they rated the taste as well as in their measurable brain activity.

And whilst the precise mechanisms for this price-driven neuromodulation are yet to be discovered, they found that certain personality traits led to subjects being susceptible – including strong reward-seekers.

Whilst the author’s concluding remarks may be a little bit scary for 1984, Orwellian-fearing folk – the world of marketing seems to have taken yet another step into the mind of the vulnerable consumer; “Understanding the underlying mechanisms of this placebo effect provides marketers with powerful tools. Marketing actions can change the very biological processes underlying a purchasing decision, making the effect very powerful indeed.”

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Max Sanderson

Science Communicator & Neuroscientist

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