Oxford study: esthetic judgments determined by what you think you know
Let’s say you’re fairly educated about wine. (If you read my blog, you undoubtedly are.) I invite you over to my place for dinner and open a bottle of Lafite Rothschild. You’re suitably impressed. I decant it, then pour you a glass, telling you as the purple liquid drizzles into the glass that this is a very great Lafite, that if I scored it I would probably give it 100 points. After that buildup, you taste the wine. It’s a virtual guarantee you’re going to like it.
Now let’s say that a little while later, I offer you another glass of wine. Only this time, I tell you that it’s not very good–that I wanted you to see how my job consists, in large part, of tasting mediocre wine. Handing you the glass, I frown; you can tell by my facial expression that I’m sorry to make you drink something so bad. After that buildup, or maybe we should call it a build-down, it’s almost certain you won’t like the wine.
Now, what if I told you that both wines I gave you were the same wine? Would you be surprised? You shouldn’t be, especially if you’d come across this report about a new study out of Oxford University. Subjects inside a brain scanner were shown works of art, some of which were genuine Rembrandts and some of which were fakes. The subjects’ reactions to both pieces were identical, until they were told which pieces were fakes and which were real. In the former case (the “real” art), the revelation “raised activity in the part of the brain that deals with rewarding events, such as tasting pleasant food or winning a gamble.” In other words, the subject felt a form of pleasure. In the case of the latter (the “fake” art), “Being told a work is not by the master triggered a complex set of responses in areas of the brain involved in planning new strategies. Participants reported that when viewing a supposed fake, they tried to work out why the experts regarded it not to be genuine.” In other words, the subjects were troubled; confronted with a situation they could not fully understand, they were forced to improvise, to rationalize the discrepency.
The take home lesson of this little experiment at Oxford is a familiar one. People’s esthetic reactions to external stimuli are powerfully dependent on their expectations. They will look at a supposed Rembrandt portrait and, “knowing” that it was painted by the master, be suitably impressed. Indeed, this is why “people travel to galleries around the world to see an original painting.” Something in the knowledge that the painting is original arouses intense pleasure. It’s not so much the art work itself as that awareness that people enjoy. On the other hand, if people “know” that a painting is fake, they will experience far different, more complex and less pleasurable thoughts and emotions–even if the painting is, in fact, real.
Pretty weird, huh? Back to my opening example of offering you the Lafite. It almost doesn’t matter whether or not the Lafite is real, or just some little Sonoma County Cabernet that costs $14. It’s irrelevant. What matters, according to the Oxford study, is what you think you know about it. That, in turn, depends on what I told you–and that, in turn, has a lot to do with how much you trust me, since I’m the “expert” in wine, and you’re not.
It follows from this that blind tasting is the only objective way to come to a conclusion about wine, but something else follows, also, that isn’t generally discussed in these types of conversations: wines of a similar variety and style are more alike than not, even when their scores vary. If I show you an apple and tell you it’s a grape, you won’t believe me, even if I had a Ph.D in fruit sciences and owned an orchard and a chain of produce stores. That’s because apples and grapes are so different that anyone can tell them apart. You cannot fool anyone that an apple is a grape, or vice versa.
But if you can fool a fairly reasonable person into believing that wine “a” is Lafite and wine “b” is mediocre, when they may be the same wine (or if the case may be the opposite, that the “mediocre” wine is Lafite and the “Lafite” is the $14 Cabernet), then those wines must be more alike than not. They cannot possibly be apples and grapes: it’s more a case of apples and apples.
But wait, you say. What if the subject of any of these experiments were a trained professional? A great taster, formidable in the intricacies of wine, renowned for identifying vintages and chateaux in blind tastings, revered for his knowledge? Could that person be fooled? Probably the chances are less, but they never approach zero. As long as a person is human, that person can be fooled, sometimes spectacularly so, as we have repeatedly seen in blind tastings. I know that nothing I’ve written here will add significantly to the conversation about how to taste wine. But every little conversation advances the cause down the playing field, and besides, it’s fun to talk about this stuff. It never gets boring.