Value And Why We Are Suckers

Listeners of the Ted Radio Hour podcast might be familiar with Paul Bloom.  He's the Yale psychologist featured in the second segment of Friday's episode, Brand vs Brain.  Dr. Bloom studies the science of why we like what we like.  And in this episode, he cuts right to the heart of why we attribute greater emotional and experiential value to branded items, even when we intellectually know them to be materially equivalent to lower priced alternatives.

In his words, "Someone isn't mistaken when they pay extra money for the better-known brand because it might lead to extra pleasure...And so we get pleasure from - sometimes from knowing what something is and knowing where it came from. And our experience is transformed in that way."

The whole time he was explaining this, I was thinking, 'Man, that's EXACTLY how so many wine brands market their product.'  And, sure enough, as that thought coalesced, he brought up wine and how studies have proved that people have a greater neurological pleasure response when they think they're drinking more expensive wine - independent of quality.  (Emphasis on "think") 

What does this information tell us?  At an academic level, it tells us that you cannot separate sensation from experience - these things are so intertwined that objectivity becomes very elusive, if not truly unattainable.  When people who drink Veuve Clicquot, for example, drink it, they are enjoying the brand experience - the cache associated with being seen drinking from that unique yellow-labelled bottle - as much, if not more, than the Champagne itself.  Don't get me wrong, Veuve Clicquot offers a far better drinking experience than cheap plonk.  But tasted blind, it doesn't live up to the hype so carefully cultivated by its brand managers - or the price they demand.

At a more practical level, though, what Dr Bloom is telling us is that we are suckers.  Humans' superior intellect has many Achilles heels, and succumbing to the romance of a good story is one of them.  And this is why we hear the back stories of wine all the time - the generations of winemakers, the centuries-old history of the land, the unrelenting commitment to hands-off winemaking.  It works.  Who cares if it's true?

But before concluding that all the wine world has to offer is lipstick-wearing pigs, it's worth noting that the reason why it's easy to identify products more heavily invested in brand than substance is because we have a marketplace full of the opposite.  It's just a hell of a lot harder to sell authenticity - another topic discussed in the same Ted Radio Hour - and one for another time on these pages.