Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Higher the Price, the Better the Taste

A study at the California Institute of Technology found that people preferred the taste of wines they thought were expensive to that of wines they were told were cheaper. From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Unbeknownst to volunteers, two sets of samples were identical -- the $5 and $45 wines ($5 actual price) and the $10 and $90 wines ($90 actual price). The fifth wine was identified by its actual $35 price. Volunteers were asked to rank the pleasantness of the wines. They liked the $90 wine best and the $5 wine least.

Brain scans showed that activity in the part of the brain that detects pleasure also moved in lock-step with price. But when tasters didn't know the prices, they rated the $5 wine as better than any of the others sampled.
This reminds me of a study done with Coke and Pepsi by neuroscientist Read Montague a few years ago. Monitoring test subjects with magnetic resonance imaging, Montague found that people tended to think Pepsi tasted better, which backed up years of Pepsi-sponsored blind taste tests. But if Pepsi really did taste better, why was Coke more popular?

Clive Thompson explained in the New York Times in 2003:
In the real world, of course, taste is not everything. So Montague tried to gauge the appeal of Coke's image, its ''brand influence,'' by repeating the experiment with a small variation: this time, he announced which of the sample tastes were Coke. The outcome was remarkable: almost all the subjects said they preferred Coke. What's more, the brain activity of the subjects was now different. There was also activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that scientists say governs high-level cognitive powers. Apparently, the subjects were meditating in a more sophisticated way on the taste of Coke, allowing memories and other impressions of the drink -- in a word, its brand -- to shape their preference.

Pepsi, crucially, couldn't achieve the same effect. When Montague reversed the situation, announcing which tastes were of Pepsi, far fewer of the subjects said they preferred Pepsi. Montague was impressed: he had demonstrated, with a fair degree of neuroscientific precision, the special power of Coke's brand to override our taste buds.
And it's not just that kind of taste. Calvin Tomkins' New Yorker article on the artist John Currin last week recalled how Currin started showing his work at Larry Gagosian's gallery. A short but telling phrase stood out: Gagosian "felt that [Currin's] prices were 'ridiculously low' and boosted them accordingly."

Now, there is a fine line between seeking out the price that a given market will bear and raising prices to raise prestige. There's a point where the trusting human brain tries to make sense out of an extremely high price, rationalizing that it must be high for a sound, logical reason. We are social creatures, herd animals, really, and we're constantly balancing the need to fit in with the desire to stand out.

Arthur Koestler told a story in his 1969 book The Act of Creation about a woman he knew who, upon learning that a Picasso print she had hanging in a stairway was actually a drawing, moved it to a more prominent place. The image didn't change; its perceived value did, so she looked it differently.

The art establishment is occasionally ambushed by contrarians who trick critics into reading lofty intentions into paintings by elephants or toddlers. The remedy is a system of criticism that takes the artist out of the equation temporarily and prizes the image itself above all else. Easier said than done.

Or, a system of criticism that values ideas over objects. That, of course, could collapse our art market and eliminate a lot of junk. It could raise the value of reproductions and create all sorts of intellectual property problems. And it will probably never happen.



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