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Oxford study: esthetic judgments determined by what you think you know

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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.

  1. Good article. The message here is that authenticity matters, and that our words about wine can help people enjoy it more.

  2. Mixed feelings on that article and how it relates to wine. Suggest people see this comment and discussion on the same topic: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2011/12/science-behind-snobbery-wine-and-health-update/46505/#comment-391991273

  3. There is a movie called “Mana: Beyond Belief” (Netflix has it) which delves into how we project value into material objects, with examples from many different cultures, and categories of objects. One example I remember is that people would line up to see a certain Rembrandt (I think it was “Man with a Golden Helmet”) that hung in the central rotunda of a museum in Germany (Dresden or Berlin?) similar to how people line up in the Louvre to shuffle by the Mona Lisa. Then an art historian produced convincing evidence that it was “only” painted by one of Rembrandt’s students. It was moved to a side wing with few people bothering to view it. It had lost its “mana.” Another example is the Tokyo fish market, where tunas are bid up in value far above their market value for sushi.

  4. Y A W N………

    I do not see what regions they looked at. Too bad you do not link to the actual paper. But I suspect you are doing what every other blogger did when the Stanford/Caltech fMRI *ECONOMICS* wine tasting study came out: you’re jumping on the title and not critically evaluating the study design, results or even bothering to read the discussion. Not that anyone harping on that study had the knowledge or understanding to recognize flaws or understand the implications of the findings not in the title but given good treatment (but conveniently left out of the title) in the final discussion presented by the authors.

    In short, these papers – at the surface – confirm what has been known for a long time: you tell a novice or someone who does not really know what they are dealing with (the way an art expert would look closely at the piece of work and by examining color choices, brush strokes, etc would deduce if the piece at hand is likely a fake or not) will defer to an external cue.
    What I would expect to see in the original is that, like in that annoyingly misinterpreted wine study, the areas of the brain responsible for receiving and recognizing the sensory data are NOT affected by the external cue.

    The difference between amateur and professional expert lies in having the training, knowledge, skill and discipline to gain introspection into the raw sensory data and then deducing from those facts what one is dealing with. Regardless of any external cues or suggestions.

    The quote in the article to which you link which says that people do not have this access or introspection is false and misleading. Else, there would not be those among us with higher skills of perception and deduction.
    It’s not that their brains are built differently. It’s that they use them in a better, more systematic and focused manner.

  5. In case anyone thinks that even the most prestigious publications only print the most vetted research:

    http://www.rgj.com/article/20111222/NEWS/111222008/Journal-Science-retracts-chronic-fatigue-study-led-by-Whittemore-Peterson-Institute?odyssey=mod|newswell|text|Local
    (from my experience with functional brain imaging, it appears that CFS is a neuropsychiatric disorder, as is Fibromyalgia, and the two may lie on an etiologic/pathologic continuum)

    or

    http://articles.cnn.com/2010-02-02/health/lancet.retraction.autism_1_andrew-wakefield-mmr-vaccine-and-autism-general-medical-council?_s=PM:HEALTH
    (autistic spectrum is a grab bag of neurodevelopmental disorders – probably a group of neoronal migration disorders and cell migration disorders in embryologic development are not that uncommon and are responsible for a number of neorologic and non neurologic disorders)

  6. The article cited doesn’t state the precise areas of the brains that were “turned on” and those that were not, but it does indicate that an area associated with “reward” (pleasure) lit up with the idea that the work of art was authentic. (The area is probably the striatum.) And the article indicates being told it was a fake activated areas “associated with planning new strategies.” That sounds like frontal lobe stuff. The straitum is not involved in rationality, but the latter is higher brain function and rational thought.

    The key thing is not that the brain is tricked, but it is that the IDEA that it is a Rembrandt (or a First Growth) gives us real pleasure that we feel just like we do with music, sex, drugs, and food. It’s from the endogenous dopamine release in the striatum, an area of the brain associated with behaviour and motivation.

    The idea that the pleasure produced by this is something an expert does not feel or somehow can ignore or override is wishful thinking. In fact, the expert who sees the label, tastes the wine sensing that it is authentic, is probably more susceptable to the pleasure producing IDEA and subsequent dopamine release than the non-expert.

  7. Reducing physiology to neurotransmitter systems (as if Dopamine was only present in nigrostriatal regions and only in the CNS), as opposed to interactions of circuits, is rather last-century. Unfortunately, this paradigm is the main limiting factor to understanding cognition and behavior (and treating its abnormalities).
    That said, the brain is about concert and not solo performance, so you have modulation from various regions, systems and circuits.

    To counter your last assertion, I refer you to the CNN footage of Sanjay Gupta assessing a Haitian infant for a head injury. By your argument, the tragedy and squalor around him should have altered his clinical judgment. After all, he is supposed to be an expert.

  8. I forgot to mention that many regions wear many hats so to speak, So the the ventromedial orbitofrontal region (which Broadman region????) (which was likely looked at, as in the Stanford/Caltech study) is not only associated with pleasure. It is activated differently in depression, PTSD, overfocused/hyperfrontal individuals as well some subtypes of Autistic Spectrum.

  9. Morton, agree, but I get a little uncomfortable with the suggestion that we’re nothing but a bunch of chemicals and electrical impulses.

  10. Steve. We are, in fact, that. In the 21st century there is no room for Cartesian Dualism. There is no soul. We are our brains. Period.

  11. I read about an interesting study related to this in monkeys. The monkeys were trained to perform a task could choose one of two symbols on a screen which gave them water, and clues appeared regarding how much water they would get. Except in one phase on both symbols the clues were random and had no bearing on the amount of water they got, they got random amounts, but in the other phase the amounts of water were still randomly delivered, however one symbol gave clues that actually indicated the amount of water they would recieve. Though they got the same water irrespective of the symbol chose, the monkeys quickly chose the symbol that provided them with advance information.

    When their brains were examined it was seen that knowing what was coming was eliciting a pleasure response. So even monkeys find knowing something ahead of time a pleasureable thing. Knowing how much water you are going to get is not much different than knowing what wine is in the bottle or who painted the picture.

  12. The “expert” definitely has some power over one’s mind. It’s crazy how many people don’t trust their own palate when it comes to wine.

  13. This is a good post because the point it makes has been duplicated elsewhere, with wine, and with experienced tasters. It was done by those Freakonomics guys, and it proves that even experienced palates are not immune to the power of suggestion.

  14. This a good reason why you shouldn’t bag wines yourself if you are going to rate them critically. You have a priori knowledge of what you are tasting and this will influence your scores. Even if you aren’t skilled enough to pick out the Venge Family Reserve, the fact that you are tasting $100+ cabernets, you will probably be influenced to score wines in the flight above 95 based on that information alone…

  15. @Patrick what study “replicating” this one was done with “experts”?
    If you mean the Stanford/Caltech one that made the rounds a couple of years back, then you need to re-read it. The test subjects were not wine experts.

  16. Steve, I’m finding parallels with the Milgram study (http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm) manifesting the tension imposed by the experts, especially in the white jackets, those who instructed the presumed torture of others; I’m still having night-terrors on those in white jackets! Enough said about those we perceive to know everything, and isn’t it a cardinal-rule that we understand that everyone has their own palate-preferences, and other’s judgments should be restrained?
    Here’s pointless cheers to the ever irascible Mephistopheles;,/

  17. @SUAMW: No I don’t mean the Stanford/CalTech study, I mean Freakonomics Radio 12/16/2010, “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?”, which was in turn based on an article of the same name by Robin Goldstein et al in the Journal of Wine Economics April 2008. See also Hilke Plassman et al, “Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan. 2008. So yes, experts were involved. On those studies and others I based my allegation (which parallels Steve’s original point), which was that even experts can be swayed by the power of suggestion. Am I right or wrong, in your opinion?

  18. In reality, the study cited above points out that wine professionals do find more “enjoyment” in expensive wines.
    “In a sample of more than 6,000 blind tastings, we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. For individuals with wine training, however, we find indications of a non-negative relationship between price and enjoyment… “These findings suggest that non-expert wine consumers should not anticipate greater enjoyment of the intrinsic qualities of a wine simply because it is expensive or is appreciated by experts. (Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?; Goldstein, R. et al; Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2008, Pages 1–9)

  19. Were these wines described in any way (more less ripe/oaky/alcohoic?), was the sensory training and any commonalities or disparities in it among the “professionals” discussed?
    Curious (knowing that ripeness, alcohol and oak levels *tend* to increase with retail price) if these people *preferred* these kinds of wine…
    Oh, never mind. The “study” was conducted by Goldstein…..

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