What is expectation assimilation?
It’s the notion that our taste perceptions are biased by our imagination, and if you expect a food to taste good it will. However, expectation assimilation also works in the opposite direction. If you expect a food to taste unpleasant it will (Wansink, 2006).
At a cafeteria in Urbana, Illinois, 175 people were given a free brownie dusted with powdered sugar (Wansink, 2006). They were told the brownie was a new dessert that may be added to the menu. They were asked how they liked the flavor and how much they would pay for it. All of the brownies were the same size and had the same ingredients. However, the brownies were served on a china plate, on a paper plate or on a paper napkin.
Those who received the brownie on a china plate said the brownie was excellent. The people eating the brownie from the paper plate rated the brownie as good. Those who were served the brownie on a napkin said it was okay but nothing special.
Individuals eating from the china plate said they would pay $1.27 for the brownie, while those eating from the paper plate said they would pay 76 cents, and those eating from the napkin said they would pay 53 cents.
If people are asked to choose between two pieces of cake–chocolate cake or Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake–most will choose the latter. Which shouldn’t be a surprise. “What’s more interesting is that after trying it, people will rate it as tasting better than an identical piece of ‘plain old cake.’ It doesn’t even matter that the Black Forest in not in Belgium” (Wansink, 2006, p.124-125).
Many people believe products that have popular brand names are better than those that have names that are not as well known. If we expect them to be better they probably will be. It’s not just the brand name, but also the packaging, pricing, and advertising that shape our positive expectations.
In a classic study conducted by Allison and Uhl (1964) college students who claimed to be “brand loyal” beer drinkers were asked to rate a number of unlabeled beers. Once the labels were removed and the beer was poured into a glass the “brand loyal” participants didn’t do very well picking out their favorite beer.
Here are some examples of expectations about food.
Expectation in Various Contexts
Coke is rated higher when drank from a cup labeled coke than when drank from a non-labeled cup.
Sliced turkey is rated higher when people think it is a popular brand.
Bitter coffee is not rated as bitter when drinkers are told it’s not bitter.
Strawberry yogurt is rated higher if labeled full fat than when it is labeled low fat.
Allison, RI. & Uhl, KP. (1964). Influence of Beer Brand Identification on Taste Perception. Journal of Marketing Research, Aug: 36-39.
Wansink, B. (2006). Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. New York, NY: Bantam.
Photo by Jeffrey W., available under a Creative Commons attribution license.