Why Expensive Wine Tastes Better: How Does Context Alter Value?

Ana Roibu

Over the past years, there has been a strong interest in research in the area of human behavior. This is due to the implications it has not only in psychology but in areas such as marketing and advertising. Recent research has shown that people perceive expensive wine to taste better, even when identical to cheaper wine. It is explained that this is due to two brain systems “tricking” the brain into believing that a higher price means better quality.

Researchers at the University of Bonn have shown that the reward and motivation pathways are activated when consuming wines with a high price tag, leading to a more pleasing taste experience. Other studies by Rangel et al. (2008) and Levy, Dino J, and Paul W. Glimche (2012) further investigated the possibility of more brain systems being linked to effective regulation and their influences in reward and modulation of taste pleasantness. The areas of the brain that were activated when the prices were higher were the medial prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum. It was found that the medial pre-frontal cortex appears to be mainly involved in integrating the price comparison and therefore involved in the evaluation of the wines. The ventral striatum is part of the brain’s reward and motivation system, which is clearly activated when prices are higher, thus increasing the taste experience for the consumer.

To perform this study, the brains of 30 participants were scanned in a fMRI machine while tasting the various wines. After tasting the wine, they rated it on a one to nine scale. The subjects tested saw different prices, 3, 6 and 18 euros, while tasting the same wine, priced at 12 euros. In total, 125 mL of wine was consumed, which is less than a glass, meaning that the perception of the taste should not have been altered by the alcohol content.

Edited by: Kaylynn Crawford, Ruby Halfacre and Shreya Singireddy