When diners order an expensive wine from a restaurant menu, they usually find that it tastes exquisite, harmonious, elegant--in short, much better than the $8 Cabernet they drink at home. A new study suggests that the high price tag could be fooling them into feeling that way by manipulating the brain's pleasure centers.
Previous studies have shown that savvy marketing can change how we feel about a product. For example, branding a perfume as classy somehow makes it smell more appealing. Curious about how such marketing affects the brain, researchers led by Antonio Rangel, an economist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Baba Shiv, a marketing professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of 20 volunteers as they sipped what they thought were five kinds of Cabernet Sauvignon. In reality, the researchers gave the subjects three wines with retail prices of $5, $35, and $90. The cheapest wine was served twice but disguised in one of the servings as a different label costing $45. The $90 vintage also made two appearances, once with its real price and once with a price of $10.
The faux marketing worked. Volunteers reported liking the cheap wine better when it had a higher price attached to it and the expensive wine less when it was marked cheaper. What's more, when sipping wines tagged with a higher price, the volunteers showed greater activity in their medial orbitofrontal cortex--a part of the brain believed to be responsible for judging pleasantness of experiences--than when they sipped the cheaply marked wines. The findings, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that marketing actions such as pricing can have a placebo effect on the brain in the same way that dummy pills have been shown to relieve pain.
"We think that the effect is driven by expectations," says Rangel. "Subjects believe that more expensive wines are likely to taste better. These expectations end up influencing their actual experience." The findings raise questions about the ability of consumers to make sound choices amid the dizzying whirl of marketing campaigns that characterize today's economy, he says.
Rajneesh Suri, a marketing professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, calls the study an example of how consumers use pricing information as a proxy for quality. "Price can serve as a quality cue that guides enjoyment of a product, especially when one does not know enough about it," he says.