Beliefs affect your perception, illustrated with wine

October 31, 2011 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Perception

An article that came out the other day illustrated how beliefs affect your perception. The result is so relevant to the Model, I couldn’t help but break from the series on the Method.


Apparently people in training to taste wine can’t tell a white wine dyed red tastes the same as an identical except un-dyed white wine. In fact, they taste different flavors in the wine. The study may cover undergrads, but they probably know more about wine than you do.

In 2001, Frederic Brochet conducted two experiments at the University of Bordeaux.

In one experiment, he got 54 penology (the study of wine tasting and wine making) undergraduates together and had them taste one glass of red wine and one glass of white wine. He had them describe each wine in as much detail as their expertise would allow. What he didn’t tell them was both were the same wine. He just dyed the white one red. In the other experiment, he asked the experts to rate two different bottles of red wine. One was very expensive, the other was cheap. Again, he tricked them. This time he had put the cheap wine in both bottles. So what were the results?

The tasters in the first experiment, the one with the dyed wine, described the sorts of berries and grapes and tannins they could detect in the red wine just as if it really was red. Every single one, all 54, could not tell it was white. In the second experiment, the one with the switched labels, the subjects went on and on about the cheap wine in the expensive bottle. They called it complex and rounded. They called the same wine in the cheap bottle weak and flat.

Another experiment at Cal-Tech pitted five bottles of wine against each other. They ranged in price from $5 to $90. Similarly, the experimenters put cheap wine in the expensive bottles — but this time they put the tasters in a brain scanner. While tasting the wine, the same parts of the brain would light up in the machine every time, but with the wine the tasters thought was expensive, one particular region of the brain became more active. Another study had tasters rate cheese eaten with two different wines. One they were told was from California, the other from North Dakota. The same wine was in both bottles. The tasters rated the cheese they ate with the California wine as being better quality, and they ate more of it.

So is the fancy world of wine tasting all pretentious bunk? Not exactly. The wine tasters in the experiments above were being influenced by the nasty beast of expectation. A wine expert’s objectivity and powers of taste under normal circumstance might be amazing, but Brochet’s manipulations of the environment mislead his subjects enough to dampen their acumen. An expert’s own expectation can act like Kryptonite on their superpowers. Expectation, as it turns out, is just as important as raw sensation. The build up to an experience can completely change how you interpret the information reaching your brain from your otherwise objective senses. In psychology, true objectivity is pretty much considered to be impossible. Memories, emotions, conditioning, and all sorts of other mental flotsam taint every new experience you gain. In addition to all this, your expectations powerfully influence the final vote in your head over what you believe to be reality. So, when tasting a wine, or watching a movie, or going on a date, or listening to a new stereo through $300 audio cables — some of what you experience comes from within and some comes from without. Expensive wine is like anything else that is expensive, the expectation it will taste better actually makes it taste better.

In one Dutch study, participants were put in a room with posters proclaiming the awesomeness of high-definition, and were told they would be watching a new high-definition program. Afterward, the subjects said they found the sharper, more colorful television to be a superior experience to standard programming. What they didn’t know was they were actually watching a standard-definition image. The expectation of seeing a better quality image led them to believe they had. Recent research shows about 18 percent of people who own high definition televisions are still watching standard-definition programming on the set, but they think they are getting a better picture.

Here is a paper in the Journal of Wine Economics with similar results. They gave three glasses of identical wine to experienced judges, not telling them they filled them with identical wine. About ten percent of judges varied rating the same wine between bronze and gold. From the abstract

About 10 percent of the judges were able to replicate their score within a single medal group. Another 10 percent, on occasion, scored the same wine Bronze to Gold.

You can find many similar results from similar tests if you look.

Many people try to explain the reasons. I find some of those explanations interesting but not as useful for understanding yourself as the simple observation that your beliefs filter your perception. These studies help illuminate that process.

So the next time someone tells you the way it is, you know they’re just telling your their opinion at the time, which could change.

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