Wining about Neuroeconomics

Neuroeconomics has promise but many of the early results leave me cold.  A forthcoming paper in PNAS, Marketing
actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness
(subs. required), has all the usual cute pictures of brain scans (see here, if you care) which are used to make the following conclusion. 

Our results show that increasing the price of a wine increases
subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as
blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex
[mOFC], an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced
pleasantness during experiential tasks.

In short, a $90 bottle of wine tastes better than a $10 bottle of wine even when it is the same wine.  But why not just ask people which wine they like best, as many previous studies have done?  How exactly does a picture of the wine-addled brain add to our knowledge?  Are we really so concerned that people would lie about their experiences that we need to put them into a 3 million dollar fMRI scanner to read their brains?   (I wonder if this paper was NSF funded.)

Moreover, the lessons that people are drawing from this study are absurd.  One common response, for example, is "It’s a marketing expert’s dream; if you want people to like your product more, charge a higher price."  Uh huh.  And what happens when every winery raises its price, will we all purchase more wine?

Living in a market economy the association in the brain between price and quality is constantly reinforced so it’s not surprising that sometimes the brain can "jump the gun" in expectation.  But don’t imagine that the association can be easily exploited for long.  Why do you think these sorts of studies always use wine?  Could it possibly be because most people can’t tell the difference between a cabernet and a merlot let alone between higher and lower quality wine?   But try telling people that a $5,000 car is $45,000 and let’s see if the medial orbitofrontal cortex
lights up with experienced

Thanks to Ted Frank for the pointer.


Comments for this post are closed