Learning to Love Mediocrity

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Let’s change the subject a bit. Felix Salmon blogs about wine periodically and writes a wine column for Reuters, and one subject that pops up now and then is how blind tastings are affected by the price of a wine. Long story short, most of us suck at distinguishing cheap wines from expensive ones (I’m especially fond of the blind tastings where people can only barely tell the difference between reds and whites), but we still prefer expensive wines anyway. Today, Felix links to a post from Jonah Lehrer explaining that this isn’t just pure snobbery. He describes an experiment showing that regardless of wine quality, a particular part of our brain lights up when we drink a wine we’re told is expensive:

What’s causing this silly behavior? [Paul] Bloom argues that essentialism plays a big role. We automatically believe that more expensive wine has a tastier essence, and that belief alters our sensory expectations. Those expectations, in turn, alter our perceptual interpretations, so that what we experience conforms to what we expect to experience. The essence of the thing has thus been confirmed: more expensive wine tastes better, even if the expensive wine is really Gallo Hearty Burgundy. This helps explain why so many food advertisements focus on the “essence” of the product, whether it’s Coors being brewed from Rocky Mountain spring water, or Evian coming straight from the French Alps. The marketers know that the easiest way to increase our pleasure isn’t by telling us how pleasurable the product is: It’s by weaving an engaging story about essences.

OK, fine. But as a philistine non-wine drinker, here’s my question: If you happen to be among the enlightened few who know about this research and accept it as true, shouldn’t that affect how you react? It’s sort of like knowing that someone is giving you a placebo. It wouldn’t work if you knew it was a sugar pill, would it?

Or would it? In any case, here’s a budget tip for tough recessionary times: instead of buying expensive wines, train your brain to understand the effect of price on the wine-drinking experience. I know you can do it. And the rewards are great: a lifetime of wine enjoyment at fifteen bucks a bottle. That’s worth a few weeks of on-the-job training, isn’t it?

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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