An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

It should come as no surprise that we tend to perceive things that cost more to be of higher quality, even when they’re not.

A researcher at the California Institute of Technology recently demonstrated that the fineness of wine is largely in the mind: test subjects routinely said Cabernet Sauvignon wine priced at $45 a bottle tasted better than wine priced at $5 — even though both samples came from the $5 bottle. The same was true when samples from a $10 bottle were labeled as costing either $10 or $90. Taste-testers thought the sample labeled $90 was better, even though it came straight from the $10 bottle.

The cynical tee-totaler in me would like to observe that grape juice gone bad is still grape juice gone bad, whatever you charge for it. I once signed up for a “wine-tasting” experience, hoping to get some idea of what others see in it. Whether red or white, sparkling or flat, last year’s crop or ten years old, it all tasted nasty to me. I couldn’t imagine drinking the stuff long enough for it to start tasting good. I did that once when switching from regular to diet soft drinks, and once was enough.

Of course, my personal aversion to anything that smells of alcohol is not the point of the study, which used a high-tech brain scanner to peek at what was going on in the taster’s mind when imbibing differently priced wines.

It turns out that the “taste center” of the brain was not fooled — it showed the same sort of activity when subjects were tasting the samples from the same bottle of wine. In contrast, the brain’s pleasure center lit up as subjects tasted wines labeled with higher prices, suggesting that the anticipation of some juicier juice had a lot of influence on how it was perceived.

Marketers have long known that how products are packaged and priced has a lot to do with how consumers perceive them. At the grocery store, cheaper “store brands” are often identical to more expensive name brands. Have you ever noticed, when there’s a recall of something, how many different brand names are given to the same product? And they can be sold at widely different prices. But we think we’re getting a better product when we pay more.

I’m too church-minded to pass on wondering how much similar factors play into our choice of a congregational home. Many factors come into play as we look for a church in which we can best express our faith and live out our commitments. Packaging and popularity (roughly equivalent to the price on a bottle of wine) can’t be ignored, but what really matters is on the inside, and that takes time to appreciate.

(The image of brain scans, from the University of California at Berkeley, is illustrative and not directly related to the study at Caltech).

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