Placebo Effect Can Make Cheap Wine Taste Great

New research shows that our preconceived beliefs about a product can create a placebo effect so strong that it actually changes our brain chemistry.

That’s why when people drink cheap wine, but are told it is expensive, they rate it highly, according to the researchers.

“Studies have shown that people enjoy identical products, such as wine or chocolate, more if they have a higher price tag,” Hilke Plassmann, Ph.D., of INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Bernd Weber, M.D., of the University of Bonn write in their study, which was published in the Journal of Marketing Research.

“However, almost no research has examined the neural and psychological processes required for such marketing placebo effects to occur.”

In one experiment, participants were told they would consume five wines ranging in price from 90 dollars to five dollars, while their brains were scanned using an MRI. In reality, they drank only three different wines with two different prices.

Another experiment used labels to generate positive (“organic”) or negative (“light”) expectations of the pleasantness of a milkshake, the researchers noted. Some consumed identical milkshakes but thought they would be either organic or regular, while others consumed identical milkshakes but thought they would be either light or regular.

The participants showed significant price and taste prejudices, both in how they rated the taste, as well as in their measurable brain activity, according to the study’s findings.

The MRI readings related, in part, to specific areas of the brain that differ from person to person. These differences are also associated with known differences in personality traits, according to the researchers.

They added they were able to determine that people who were strong reward-seekers or who were low in physical self-awareness were also more susceptible to having their experience shaped by prejudices about the product.

“Understanding the underlying mechanisms of this placebo effect provides marketers with powerful tools,” the researchers said in the study.

“Marketing actions can change the very biological processes underlying a purchasing decision, making the effect very powerful indeed.”

Source: American Marketing Association