People with too much money aren’t often blessed with good taste. Just look at any Hello! magazine wedding or inside any deposed dictator’s palace. But, surely someone selling them those overpriced luxuries knows good from bad. Science has been out to investigate connoisseurship and has found it wanting. In a superb recent study published in the highly prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, experts could not tell Stradivarius from the best modern violins, with a majority actually preferring the modern instruments.
Meanwhile, in Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer reports that art and wine appreciation are all too easily biased by a glance at the price tag. A brain scanning study at Oxford found no noticeable differences between visual areas response to paintings that were labeled ‘Rembrandt‘ and ‘school of Rembrandt’. Crucially however, They did a great big difference in the orbitofrontal cortex, “a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain.” The paintings were not perceived differently but they were appraised differently.
Much the effect occurred when people where drinking wine in brain-scanners:
These lessons don’t just apply to the evaluation of art. In fact, the same mental process also appears to drive our appreciation of expensive wine. In both instances, the sensory differences on display — say, the visual distinction between a real and fake Rembrandt, or the taste of Trader Joes Pinot versus a Romanee-Conti — are overwhelmed by our cognitive beliefs about what we’re experiencing. Consider this recent experiment led by neuroeconomists at Caltech. Twenty people sampled five
Cabernet Sauvignons that were distinguished solely by their retail price, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the people were told that all five wines were different, the scientists weren’t telling the truth: There were only three different wines. This meant that the same wines would often reappear, but with different price labels. For example, the first wine offered during the tasting — it was a cheap bottle of Californian Cabernet — was labeled both as a $5 wine (its actual retail price) and as a $45 wine, a 900 percent markup. All of the red wines were sipped inside an fMRI machine.
Not surprisingly, the subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better. They preferred the $90 bottle to the $10 bottle, and thought the $45 Cabernet was far superior to the $5 plonk. By conducting the wine tasting inside an fMRI machine — the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes — the scientists could see how the brains of the subjects responded to the different wines. While a variety of brain regions were activated during the experiment, only one brain region seemed to respond to the price of the wine, rather than the wine itself: the orbitofrontal cortex. In general, more expensive wines made this part of the brain more excited. The scientists argue that the activity of this region shifted the preferences of the wine tasters, so that the $90 Cabernet seemed to taste better than the $35 Cabernet, even though they were actually the same wine.
- How Does the Brain Perceive Art? (wired.com)
- Million-dollar Stradivarius loses out in play-off with modern violin (theage.com.au)
- In Play-Off Between Old and New Violins, Stradivarius Lags (nytimes.com)
- Being told painting is fake changes our brains’ response to it (news.bioscholar.com)