Friday, February 8, 2008

Further evidence that suggestion shapes experience

OFD recently reported on the phenomenon of confirmation bias: the tendency for people to unconsciously adapt to support the stimuli they are confronted by.

was the stimuli in the study at Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. The resulting bias went further than merely perception: when taste bud receptors are altered by emotive food descriptors such as succulent, the event becomes a physical as well as a mental one.

Price was the stimuli in the study from the California Institute of Technology. Dr Rangel gave his volunteers sips of what he said were five different wines made from cabernet sauvignon grapes, priced at between $5 and $90 a bottle. He told each of them the price of the wine in question as he did so. Except, of course, that he was fibbing. He actually used only three wines. He served up two of them twice at different prices.

Dr Rangel used functional magnetic-resonance imaging, which can detect changes in the blood flow in parts of the brain that correspond to increased mental activity. He looked in particular at the activity of the medial orbitofrontal cortex. This is an area of the brain that previous experiments have shown is responsible for registering pleasant experiences.

Participants gave higher ratings to higher priced wines. In addition the scanner showed that the activity of the medial orbitofrontal cortices of the volunteers increased in line with the stated price of the wine. This suggested that the confirmation bias was influencing recipients in a physical capacity as well as mental one, just like the Cornell findings.

Marketers will be satisfied at just the perceptual effect of bias. They've long known that levels of pricing come with their own implied associations including quality. If a consumer leans on these and it supports perceptions, does it matter if it is only an event in the mind?

The anthropologists among us did find the evolutionary-oriented origin for confirmation bias fascinating. The point of learning is to improve an individual's chances of surviving and reproducing: if the experience and opinions of others can be harnessed to that end, so much the better. Dr Rangel suspects that what he has found is a mechanism for learning quickly what has helped others in the past, and thus for allowing choices about what is nice and what is nasty to be made speedily and efficiently. In modern society, price is probably a good proxy for such collective wisdom.

However, goods can be desirable for a reason other than survival value. Many of the things for which high price is an enhancement are purchased in order to show off, as any male confronted with the wine list in a fancy restaurant knows. Indeed, conspicuous consumption and waste are an important part of social display. Deployed properly, they bring the rewards of status and better mating opportunities. For this to work, though, it helps if the displaying individual really believes that what he is buying is not only more expensive than the alternative, but better, too. Truly enjoying something simply because it is exclusive thus makes evolutionary sense.

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