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Wednesday, January 10, 2007
I'm a sucker for this kind of social-science study. The December Psychological Science has an article that demonstrates just how manipulable our judgments about taste are. (Literal taste, in this case, but the study is relevant to broader conceptions of taste, too.)
A Columbia business-school professor and two MIT business professors -- Shane Frederick and Dan Ariely -- tested how people react when you put a few drops of balsamic vinegar (Trader Joe's) in their beer (Sam Adams). Vinegar, the authors explain, is "a beer flavoring that most participants find conceptually offensive, but that does not, at this concentration, degrade the beer's flavor (in fact, it slightly improves it)."
Asked in the abstract what they think of the idea, some 80 percent of participants in one survey said, basically, Yuck. That's what you would expect.
But when the professors administered a blind taste test, 59 percent of the participants actually preferred the beer with vinegar to an unadulterated glass of Sam Adams. (During the test, the scholars dubbed the augmented drink "MIT brew.")
In another test, however, in which participants were told ahead of time which glass of beer had vinegar in it, the proportion preferring the vinegar beer dropped to 30 percent. Preconceptions shaped the subjects' taste judgments.
If you follow a different order, however -- 1. taste test, 2.explain which beer includes vinegar, 3. ask which beer participants prefer -- the preference only drops to 52 percent. That suggests that people's actual preference for the vinegar-beer is fairly strong.It can survive the shock of learning what it is they were drinking.
The authors link their findings to others from the psychological literature: For example, give the same ice cream two different labels, "low fat" and "regular fat," and people will say the high-fat product tastes better. And they'll eat more of it.
(Access to Psychological Science requires a subscription, but you can read an abstract here.)