Pleasure Stems from the Sizzle as well as the Steak

by Jim Schnabel

May, 2008

You really do get what you pay for. So says a group of “neuroeconomists,” who study the brain pathways involved in consumer behavior.

In the January 22 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they reported that volunteer subjects liked wine better when told it was more expensive. Brain scans backed up these ratings, indicating that the subjects actually
experienced more “pleasantness” from the wine they thought was pricier.

“For traditional economists, this would be considered a radical finding,” says Cal Tech psychologist John O’Doherty, one of the study’s authors.

That is because the extrinsic factors of a good, such as its price or brand, have traditionally been considered relevant
only to the decision to consume, not to what economists call the “experienced utility” of the actual consumption. In other words, even if advertisers “sell the sizzle, not the steak,” we consumers end up enjoying only the steak.

In fact, we enjoy the sizzle too, say O’Doherty and his colleagues.

The experiment included 20 volunteers who were asked to perform a simple wine-tasting exercise while undergoing
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. The volunteers were presented with what were said to be five different brands of cabernet, each with an associated price per bottle.

But there was a catch: The lowest-pricedwine was presented twice, the second time as a different wine labeledwith a much higher price. Similarly, the highest-priced wine was presented twice, once with its real price and again as a different wine at a lower price.

No subjects noted that they had tasted only three wines, and their ratings of the twice-presented wines rose and fell significantly with the price changes. These ratings correlated with rises and falls in activity, on fMRI scans, of areas in and around the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), located just above the eyes.

A similar result was reported in 2004 by neuroscientist Read Montague’s lab at the Baylor College of Medicine. In that
study, reported in Neuron, 67 volunteers were challenged with random, blind taste tests of Pepsi vs. Coke. Their taste ratings were about evenly split between the two when they didn’t know what brand they were drinking, but when cued with brand information, they shifted towards the stronger brand, Coke. Brain scans suggested that when each cola sample was tasted, its likeability was determined in the same frontal region of the cortex that includes the OFC.

“That pathway seems to be involved in evaluating the goodness of something,” says Montague. “And it’s not just on the dimensions of gustation. You can get responses there looking at pictures of beautiful people, and choosing things that have reward outcomes.”

The fact that the evaluations performed in this area can be modified so strongly by relatively simple price and brand cues suggests that the brain, in perceiving the pleasure of an experience, takes what the senses are actually detecting and blends that—or even overrides it—with what memory thinks its should be perceiving.

Thus our faith that price or brand information correlate with quality may reflect a very basic cognitive adaptation.
“During decision-making under uncertainty, we are naturally looking for proxies that help us to decide,” says Cal Tech postdoc Hilke Plassman, first author on the wine-tasting study.

But overreliance on price as a proxy signal can easily get us into trouble, leading us into “ ‘irrational’ valuations for things, such as in a market bubble,” O’Doherty notes.

The problem for economic models—indeed for any utilitarian system—is how to decide what valuations are “irrational”
when human judgments, even of pleasure, are so malleable. Fixing this problem, O’Doherty says, will be “an interesting
direction for future research.”