Monday, June 25, 2012

The Joy of Priming

I’m going to reveal one of my secrets – one of the ways I irritate people. Sort of unintentional, but inarguably.

Who wants to believe that they can’t trust their own taste? Not most people, but it is to some degree true of all of us. We don’t want to believe it because we like to think that our choices, likes and dislikes, are rational. But, often, they are not rational at all, and we are influenced by our beliefs. In fact, the experimental psychological evidence for this is overwhelming.

My own biases make it easy for me to believe it about myself. Back when I only liked caffenated coffee in the 1980s I told people that if they only have decaf, lie to me, I wouldn’t know the difference. I know a lot of people who are sure they can tell, but I've always doubted it. I was also pretty sure that, especially if a soda was cold enough, I couldn’t tell the difference between various brands either. At some very early point, I realized it wasn’t just me. People often had no idea what specifically they were eating or drinking, but enjoyed it according to whether they believed it was a brand or type of food/drink they liked or not. That isn’t to say they wouldn’t know if the food was spoiled, or over/under cooked to their liking, extra salty or sweet, etc., but generally speaking, to a considerable degree, when it comes to the same general type of food/drink - we taste what we believe we are tasting. And, possibly, it doesn't even have to be the same type of food.

People don’t mind so much when I say this about myself, because they can just chalk it up to my lack of “good” taste or some personality defect (“you don’t care about taste”). But, when I suggest it applies to pretty much everyone, they really don’t like it so much, and sometimes vehemently disagree.  It really irritates people. And, if you want to learn a little about the following, you can irritate people too at your next cocktail party. I don’t recommend talking about this in a bar, but, otherwise, due to social norms of civility, you probably won’t be strangled either. But, you watch, people will not be very happy.

I know what you are thinking. Maybe most people can’t tell the difference between similar food, but not you. You always know the difference. In fact, just a few days ago I was discussing this very topic with a couple of friends and our waiter, and going through some of the research I’ll relate below (who wouldn't want to have dinner with me after that revelation?). All three of them completely disagreed that it would apply to them. But, the studies show, they are all very likely wrong.

Just as a non-scientific example, I have a friend who has a real problem with the taste of fish. I mean she really, really, really hates fish – won’t even eat at all if any fish or seafood is placed on her plate. But, one day, when I put out a cracker spread made out of fish, and forgot to mention it to her (I swear, that was an accident), she not only didn’t notice, but she liked it. She thought it was regular dip. In another unintentional and unscientific experiment, I made my daughter and her friend potatoes one night and died them blue with tasteless, harmless food coloring. They tried it and it made them sick (well, my kid says she was just showing her friend moral support, but it made her sick).

It doesn’t even really have to be food. To move to another type of taste, I did an experiment on a friend by giving him a classical cd and asking him what he thought. He listened to it and thought it was “okay.” I didn’t tell him who the composers/performers were. A few weeks later, I played the cd for him but told him it was by Yo Yo Ma and some other musicians he respected a great deal because of their reputation, but didn’t know a lot about. When he heard it after being “primed” with that knowledge, he liked it a lot more, and he had known he had already heard it. Frankly, I think I could have played a lot of things for him, and if he believed it was Yo Yo Ma, he would have liked that better too. And, not just him. Most people.

In a similar manner, I’ve done my own experiments with women who were sure they had extraordinary noses (don’t ask me why more women feel this way as opposed to men). And, I’ve found that the suggestion that a certain smell is present arouses the sense in them. I believe they really smell a bad smell, that is, their synapses are signalling ycch, just as a sight or sound from our past can bring back a taste or smell to us, even from long ago.

Those are only personal examples. There are many academic studies which show this to be the case. An experiment in 1981 (Nevid) showed that people preferred Perrier to Old Fashioned Selzer -- that is, so long as the drinks were labeled. Once the labels were off, no preference was shown at all.

An experiment in 1994 (Wardle) showed that people rated food as being tastier when they believed it was high in fat as opposed to low fat. Of course, it was the same preparation both times. When I read about this experiment, my first thought was that I knew people who I believe would find the opposite – that the supposedly healthier food tasted better, having convinced themselves that this was true. Sure enough, studies showed that different groups of people got different results exactly as expected, at least in part as a result of their demographic (like age, sex) – but, the overall effect was usually the same – their appreciation of taste was affected by what they were led to believe.

A 2008 experiment (Allen) set out to show that even when people’s personal values matched the symbolic value they put on certain food, they thought it tasted better (that sounds confusing, but trust me there was a way to find out the symbolic value of certain food). Conversely, when their personal value wasn’t compatible with the symbolic value, they didn’t like the food as much. The authors weren’t suggesting that actual taste played no role, just that it could be heavily influenced by something as abstract as values. And, they were apparently right.  

I especially find that people don’t want to know about this fact of life when they are dealing with alcohol, especially if they are proud of their supposed knowledge. But, it most definitely shows up there too. A 2009 study from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland showed that people’s appreciation of the taste of different types of wine was even strongly affected by what type of music was being played in the background while they drank it.

Two studies by a psychologist/wine grower, Frédéric Brochet, have become well known. In one, he found that 57 wine “experts” all thought that a white wine dyed red tasted different than the same white without the tasteless food coloring. In fact, some reported tasting a crushed red berry flavor in the phony red. Think about that the next time you say no thanks -- I only drink white or red (although he found the very few people who noticed the similarity were not experts).

In another study he did, he showed that so-called experts also apprised taste based upon their beliefs as to the price of the wine they were tasting (again, actually the same wine). No wonder I'm so cynical about experts.

It’s not just “experts” either. In another more informal, but heavily sampled study by Robin Goldstein, a food critic, he had both experts and ordinary wine drinkers taste 6000 glasses of wine without labels over the course of (I believe) a year. Turned out, particularly when it came to non experts, price meant nothing when it comes to a blind taste test. People liked what they liked. From the abstract from the Journal of Wine Economics, Spring, 2008: "Individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In a sample of more than 6,000 blind tastings, we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. . . ." They did believe thought that there was "indications" that it might make a difference to experts, contrary to some other finding.

Just as I suggested that I believe some women I know actually smell what it suggested to them is present, there appears to be a physiological basis for people to believe that more expensive products taste better. For example, in another fascinating test conducted in 2008 (Shiv)  wine drinkers were hooked up to a fmri machine (which shows what parts of the brain are working during different experiences). Not surprisingly, not only did the subjects taste five different wines – as they were told there were - when there were really only three, but they also reported that the ones which they were told were more expensive tasted better. Not only that, but the pleasure center in the brain was shown by the fmri to be excited due to expectation of the more expensive wine, even though it wasn’t so.

The same, of course, goes for beer as wine. A 2006 study (Lee) showed that in a blind taste test, subjects preferred “MIT” beer to regular beer. What was called MIT beer was really the same beer with three drops of balsamic vinegar in it. But, also, two other variables were given to groups, where the “secret ingredient” was revealed to them either before or after the taste testing, but before they stated which they liked better. The results showed that the revelation had a substantially higher affect when it was revealed before the tasting, as opposed to afterwards. In other words, once they had tried it, and at least internally decided the MIT beer tasted better, they didn’t seem to want to change their minds (this might be, in common terms – pride).

These results are usually explained by what is nowadays called priming or cognitive priming – a fancy way of saying prepping the mind or prejudicing it one way or the other. Few people seem comfortable with believing that we – they – are so easily colored by priming. The truth is, we don’t really shouldn't need psychologists to tell us this. Not only do people in business, particularly advertising and marketing, know this, but most people learn as we are growing up different techniques to get people to “like” us or things by priming them. But, there is much of it that turns out to be unconscious and most people actually spend zero time really thinking about it – they just do it and react to it automatically.

Experimental psychologists do help us “prove” (really disprove the contrary) things like this, but, it doesn’t matter – just as my friends and the waiter at dinner, people are still sure their judgments are really all a product of their taste, reason and will.  

A few more, just because I so enjoy this stuff. A 1983 (Darley, Ross) study showed that Princeton University students apprised the academic level of the same child (shown on a video) differently depending on whether they were told she was wealthier or poorer.  Not so surprising. A study from a university in Wales last year showed that women judged a man’s looks based upon what kind of car he was driving. Men judging women apparently didn’t care.

Here’s another one that should give us pause. Way back in 1968 Rosenthal and Jacobson showed that by telling teachers that certain students were academically successful, the next year those same children actually had a noticeable improvement in testing. It seems pretty clear that this was due to different treatment by the teachers. The reverse is true as well. In 1979, Feldman and Prohaska showed that how students did on tests was considerably affected by whether they heard positive or negative things about the teacher beforehand.

I could go on for a long time about these tests, as they fascinate me. But, no one who reads this will let it affect their lives in any way, probably not for a minute. If they are wine drinkers, they are still going to go out and buy the wine they are sure they “like” best. They will still be sure they know what they are drinking and eating because they “know.” I buy the premise wholeheartedly, but always buy Diet Coke instead of Diet Pepsi, if given a choice. Actually, I prefer Diet Doctor Pepper, but am not sure I could tell the difference between it and Coke if I was misled. I do know I can't tell diet from regular if led astray.

Speaking of psychology, I don’t know why I am so interested in this subject or why I have made an effort to prove it to other people, when they so obviously don’t want to hear it or know it. What I do remember is that I became very cynical about why people liked or thought they liked certain things when I was very young. This was true as early as the 4th or 5th grade when I began testing it in my own way.

That’s about as far as I can get in analyzing it except I am pretty sure it is somehow related to an aversion I have to being “fooled.”  I have always preferred being cheated to fooled. It may be part of the reason I ended up a psych major in college, not that I therefore tried very hard at it. But, I did pay some attention in my cognitive and perception classes and, unlike many other classes I took in college, actually remember some of what I learned. Ironically, though I am abstractly fascinated by science and experimentation, and love reading studies and theories, the reality of lab work was so boring to me that the Psych Intro Lab might have been the worst grade I received in college – and that was with one of my favorite professors.

Wait a second – I just remembered I actually have my college transcript here (no, really) – yup, worst grade in college. Ah, Magoo, you've done it again.


  1. "I could go on for a long time about these tests because they fascinate me." Really? How does it feel to be a committee of ONE? I would say COULD and DID, my boy. Holy mother of pearl, I haven't read such lively paragraphs since my last Henry James novel. Hurricane Andrew didn't have enough wind to blow life into this one. Last rites administered, let us move on. Next week will be better, I'm sure.

  2. Guess I threw you a softball with that quote, didn't I?

    Actually, next week is a political update and we know how you feel about those.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .