The Corpus Callosum

Several days ago, I saw an
about some research on the relationship between the
price of wine, the subjective experience of taste, and the effect of
wine on brain function as assessed by .

The research is part of the growing body of work that pertains to the
study of neural effects of marketing: .  Of course,
marketing is conducted in order to change behavior.  Behavior
is changed by perceptions, which are mediated by the brain.
 So it makes sense to study the effect that marketing has on
the brain.

I did not get around to writing a post on the topic.  In the
meantime, Jonah Lehrer wrote about it on The
Frontal Cortex
.  Read his post before
finishing this one.  He has the links, and a good explanation
of what the study was about and what it means.

OK, you’re back.

I have just a couple of things to add.  First of all, the
study referred to something they called “experienced utility.”
 I guess they are referring to the value that a person
 thinks they got from a purchase.  They also refer to
“subjective reports of flavor pleasantness.”   This phrase
denotes the person’s sensory experience, which, with respect to wine,
makes up much of the utility.

What I wonder about, is this: is it true that most of the utility of a
bottle of wine comes from the taste of the wine?  Unless a
person buys the wine specifically with the intent of becoming
intoxicated, it would appear so…at least at first glance.

What people are trying to get, when they buy a bottle of wine, is
indeed an experience.  Part of that experience is the taste.
 Part of it may be intoxication.  But part of it is
an expression of — and investment in — self identity.

If you buy a 40 oz. bottle of Budweiser, you become, in part, a person
who buys Budweiser.  Perhaps it is hard to see the utility in
that, but apparently there is some.  After all, a leather
Budweiser NASCAR jacket will set you back $200.  Someone must
see some value in it.

Spending money on self-image is nothing new.  Selling
self-image is probably the world’s second-oldest profession.  

It is easy to measure things in the brain.  But figuring out
exactly what it is that you are measuring can be exceptionally
difficult.  Figuring out what the measurements mean, may be


  1. #1 jayh
    January 31, 2008

    “Selling self-image is probably the world’s second-oldest profession.”

    Actually selling self image is what the world’s oldest profession does very well.

  2. #2 jayh
    January 31, 2008

    Some more thoughts

    This is fascinating. There have been quite a few blind tests where even experienced tasters have wound up preferring a cheaper product on occasion (other times they have picked the ‘better’ one).

    Part can be dismissed as placebo, but there are also other (more or less valid) factors at work:

    Sometimes a more expensive product (especially a highly variable item) is more consistently good, and less likely to disappoint.

    We do place weight on experiences of others, as social beings. Often this helps us to make good choices, but it sometines fails us. Nonetheless it is probably a useful psychological attribute.

    Selection may be a social factor. Prestige is useful (even in attracting mates–so it has evolutionary validity) If it helps you socially, it has utility.

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