Placebo connoisseurship

Stephen Dubner does a gloss on the now familiar finding that we enjoy stuff for reasons far removed from the stuff’s intrinsic properties.  His angle is that you will enjoy wine more if you know you paid more for it.  I first came upon this proposition many, many years ago,  around the time that Philip Morris bought Miller, found that it had the favorite beer of people who didn’t drink much beer – Grandma on special occasions – and repositioned it with sports figures. A stock analyst I met who followed beer companies shared some wonderful anecdotes, mostly illustrating the insistence of mass-market brewers that their beers taste alike and boring, because they are very good at selling beer by image and associations, but find taste hard to handle and unpredictable. [Wine is a little more complicated, as are craft and specialty beers.  My favorite part of the wine story is how the white coats at UC Davis taught the world how to make really good, cheap wine; one of the greatest successes, in terms of net consumer and producer world-wide value created, in the history of government research.]

If you want to spoil an evening, or win some easy money, or maybe get punched in the nose, propose to folks who demand a certain brand of American lager (Budweiser, Coors, Miller, etc) that they cannot pick out their favorite brand in a blind test.  This works even better with vodka, whose legal definition is “grain neutral spirits [that’s ethanol and water] without distinctive taste or odor”.  In fact, I’ve been told very few people can distinguish bourbon, scotch and brandy in a blind test (!) – don’t even think about picking your 21-year-old single malt from among a couple of shot glasses of  Chivas -  but haven’t tried this one.

The effect is comparable to the placebo effect in medicine; it’s real, but it doesn’t work unless you lie to the patient about what you’re doing. So the obvious strategy for your friends is for you to buy a bottle each of  really expensive liquors, and decant whatever’s on sale this week into them.  If they see you pouring out of the expensive bottle, they will enjoy their libation as much as they would if you served them the real stuff.  The problem is, what do you do for yourself?  Does knowing that it’s mostly the illusion of price that makes you enjoy something allow you to learn to take pleasure in something cheap and known to be so?  Can you teach yourself to enjoy more for less by doing your own blind tests and noting the results? [The RBC officially deplores driving lit even if you got stewed in the service of research; do this at home.] I myself have pretty much given up learning about wines except in very broad categories, because I never get served anything that tastes like plonk and always enjoy what’s put before  me.

Important: I wish to assure my friends that I absolutely would never dream of doing the deceptive bottle trick myself: anything you’re offered in my home is exactly what it claims to be.  Boy Scout’s honor, absolute vow of truth, trust me, I’m really not kidding here, may my thumb cleave to the ball of my mouse, and my capslock key activate itself randomly when I’m typing passwords, and like that.

Lagniappe: browsing around the Freakonomics site I came upon a link to an evaluation of the stimulus by Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy from two years ago, that had this remarkable passage:

Many Democrats saw the stimulus bill as a golden opportunity to enact spending items they’ve long desired. For this reason, various components of the package are unlikely to pass any reasonably stringent cost-benefit test.

If that vacuous, partisan, snipe had come from some blogger or columnist, I would treat it as the junk it is (did I miss the paper that showed that Republican pork usually passes such a test?).  But it pours directly from a bottle labeled with a Nobel Prize winner (and on other evidence, a smart guy and creative thinker); should I think it’s considerable?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

24 thoughts on “Placebo connoisseurship”

  1. "The RBC officially deplores driving lit even if you got stewed in the service of research; do this at home"

    Or walk.

  2. Re your last point, I read an interesting excerpt and comment in a blog a couple of years ago:

    "Schelling thinks he had what Becker and Murphy lacked: personal experience. He quit smoking in 1955, but started up again in 1958 when he bought a cigar in a London restaurant (“thinking I was immune”) and spent the next 15 years trying to quit. It was many decades before Becker and Murphy formulated their hypothesis but Schelling says “I learned then that they don’t know what they’re talking about.” "

    I know some economists take the Becker-Murphy-Grossman model seriously, but I’ve never figured out why. It’s a lovely bit of applied math, but it fits the phenomena like a cheap suit. If you want to understand addiction, Schelling’s essays on self-command (e.g., the 1982 Tanner Lecture, reprinted in Choice and Consequence) are a much sounder place to start.

    Guess the blog.

    Which is to say, Chateau Chicago isn't aging so well.

  3. I've noticed differences between different brandy bottlings, even of the same distiller.

    But usually after the third glass, they converge in taste somewhat.

    By the 5th, you might not be able to tell it from water.

    By the next morning, you wish you had.

  4. "If that vacuous, partisan, snipe had come from some blogger or columnist, I would treat it as the junk it is (did I miss the paper that showed that Republican pork usually passes such a test?). But it pours directly from a bottle labeled with a Nobel Prize winner (and on other evidence, a smart guy and creative thinker); should I think it’s considerable?"

    As said above, with Chateau Chicago, you know that it's not good.

  5. @MobiusKlein: This is why the clever host puts the nice booze away after the first hour or so. If you were to pull the decanting trick, the later stretch of a drunken party would definitely be the place to do it, since nobody will be in a position to tell or care, and they'll have bigger problems to contend with the next day anyway.

  6. > very few people can distinguish bourbon, scotch and brandy in a blind test

    That strikes me as insane, assuming you have picked reasonably characteristic varieties of each. If you carefully select the brands for tastelessness and serve them over ice, however, I can see how that would be the case.

    > don't even think about picking your 21-year-old single malt from among a couple of shot glasses of Chivas

    My choice of malt? I bet you a case (6 bottles) of Springbank 21 that I can pick it out from two glasses of Chivas.

    > I've noticed differences between different brandy bottlings, even of the same distiller.

    Sure. The tough part is recalling those flavors blind. That is not a bet I would take.

    > mostly the illusion of price that makes you enjoy something allow you to learn to take pleasure in something cheap

    There is nothing sweeter than finding something really good *and* really cheap.

    Veblen goods are for Italian princes and Chinese businessmen, not for me.

  7. wcw: (3 brown goods) hence the (!). I keep meaning to try this; if anyone does, post a comment. I'm sure there exist people who can make these fine discriminations in one or another context, like a brewmeister among beers. But I'm quite sure we all generally exaggerate our ability to tell the difference between things we think we know about.

  8. I would bet I could blind taste the difference between the expensive & cheap(er) versions of my specific favorite brand (from Ukiah! ) but throw in some different ones, I'd be off.

  9. I can tell lager from good beer, and thats about it.

    You can tell what you are drinking even less if you aren't "tasting" it, but drinking it.

    Do buy good shrooms from someone who knows what they're doing, though.

    My general approach to recipes is "strip out all the bullshit, taste it – if it doesn't taste good, add steps back one at a time, until it does"

  10. MobiusKlein, I'm a Scotch guy, but I dig the west-coast spirits scene the most. And I think that's my point: with Springbank, I am stacking the deck in the worst way, the way you would be with what I have to assume is Germain-Robin.

    Michael O'Hare, I know my limits. I would not pretend to be able to pick "a" 21yo out of Chivases, especially if you're allowed older blends. But Springbank is the only distiller left in Campbeltown, one of the four original Scotch regions, and has a very distinctive house style, and doesn't sell into blends. It is very nearly a sure thing — *you* could pick the Springbank 21 out of two Chivases.

    I am sorely tempted to try the brown-goods-off. What will our three characteristic brands be — Jim Beam, Johnny Walker Red and Remy Martin? I am pretty sure my wife would pick them out by smell alone.

  11. "Many Democrats saw the stimulus bill as a golden opportunity to enact spending items they’ve long desired. For this reason, various components of the package are unlikely to pass any reasonably stringent cost-benefit test."

    I think the first sentence is unexceptionable. The second sentence is confusing: there were a lot of things the Dems wanted. They put them through, because they could, they had big majorities, and they wrapped them in the cloak of crisis ('never waste a good…'}. That does not carry any information that these things could, or could not, satisfy a cost-benefit test. If you just pick a bunch of spending items which Dems have wanted and Reeps have not out of a bag, some will pass a cost-benefit test and some will not. So if you read this as 'Dems picked a random bunch of things they wanted, from their list' and assume a distribution of those things between 'justifies-cost' and 'does-not-justify-cost-but-damnit-a-decent-society-would do this' then the sentence makes sense. It's sort of sloppily written, I think.

  12. I think the assumption is that, if the various things DID pass a cost benefit test, they could have passed them openly as separate measures. Cramming everything into a "must pass" bill, and then demanding a vote before it can be closely examined and debated, doesn't logically preclude the individual items being perfectly defensible. You can make chili with Kobe beef, too… But who would? If you've got Kobe beef, you don't grind it up and pile on the pepper, you centerpiece it. It's the freezer burned chuck you make into chili.

    "and assume a distribution of those things between ‘justifies-cost’ and ‘does-not-justify-cost-but-damnit-a-decent-society-would do this’"

    I'd assume the distribution ranges from 'justifies-cost' to 'could never pass a smell test', myself.

  13. It's important to distinguish two things: can people DISTINGUISH two different products; and can people IDENTIFY them? My wife and I did a series of informal (at home) taste tests. One of us poured two different brands into three glasses, with one brand getting two glasses, and the other one. The taster knew the brands, but did not know which glass held which brand. We found it pretty easy to distinguish brands, except for vodka. In other words, we could generally identify which glass tastes different.

    We found it much more difficult identify brands accurately, although I don't doubt WCW's skill. We often couldn't tell which glass came from which bottle. We could usually identify good scotch against cheap scotch, but had a very hard time identifying cheap scotch against cheap scotch. Good against good depended–we could easily identify an Islay against a Highland, but don't ask me to identify two Islays against each other. (Yes, wcw, we do drink Springbank, but only on special occasions.)

  14. Suddenly Brett has such faith in the political process that any program that passes a benefit-cost test, no matter how powerful the losers and how politically weak the winners, would automatically sail through the Congress? Brett, it's getting harder and harder to take your stuff seriously. Try to at least pretend to be reasoning rather than emoting.

  15. I will bet any amount of money that I could pick out my favorite scotch from Chivas. It's an islay that AFAIK also doesn't sell into the blends. It's like claiming you can't distinguish Dr. Pepper from Sprite.

  16. I had a college roommate who said the same 'blind taste test' bit about Coke vs Pepsi & diet vs regular.

    He thought we wouldn't be able to tell.

    In fact, most of us ranked and distinguished all the 4 combos perfectly.

  17. That finding where people can't distinguish brown goods probably makes sense, if they just grabbed people off the street and fed them well-grade booze. Not many people drink distilled spirits neat, or lightly watered. Also, there's a big difference between what a "connoisseur" would drink and the stuff bars use for well drinks, which is what the randomly chosen person would have experience with.

    But for anyone who has any history of drinking neat spirits, it seems to me a dumb joke to suggest that they would not be able to distinguish bourbon from scotch or brandy. And if you don't think a malt drinker can distinguish his favorite from Chivas you must not know many of them.

    Anyway, the whole point of connoisseurship is precisely being able to make the kind of distinctions you're talking about. It's just that there's a well-established lack of true wine connoisseurs, or perhaps wine is a poor subject for cultivating that kind of taste, or there are wild mismatches between price and quality in the wine market.

    It's just as well, because cultivating an elevated taste for something just means that you have lots of opportunities to be offended by the crap that most people put up with all of the time.

  18. A good friend of mine, Ned Perrin, <a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=iI5uCpDDgTkC&pg=PA58&lpg=PA58&dq=perrin+%22maple+syrup%22+palates+test&source=bl&ots=ZnXr9i2aQ4&sig=prE0vgrnVBkeoE218qQzM-UTpFA&hl=en&ei=naELTYiSOM6s8AaVodGoDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false&quot; rel="nofollow">once did this test with maple syrup. He set up a table down at the village store and gave people different varieties of syrup to taste (including a couple different grades of real syrup, plus one of that fake chemical stuff).

    There seemed to be two populations, one with "refined palates" (people who could reliably differentiate among and identify the three samples) and the other with "dull palates" (people who couldn't really tell which was which).

  19. It might be pointing out that wine professionals HATE blind taste tests, and avoid them when possible.

    It isn't hard to distinguish an Islay from a blend, and even identify the Islay. But try the same test with two decent Islays against each other, or two Speysides. You can probably distinguish them, but I think that a number of connoisseurs might be embarrassed at the identification end of the business.

  20. I know tastes differ, but, God, I'm uncertain how anybody can appreciate the flavor of ANYTHING that's got a significant amount of alcohol in it. I find the experience of tasting alcoholic beverages somewhat like deliberately drinking industrial solvents: I just can't get past how bad the alcohol itself tastes. (Ok, I know that technically it doesn't have a "taste", but I can tell it's there, and in a way that just ruins what might otherwise be a decent fruit juice or whatever.)

    This subject is always going to be music to a blind man, apparently. And it's not any moral issue, I've got no beef at all with people who drink recreationaly, I use it in cooking, I even try to choke down a glass of wine every time I read a report on it's health benefits. But it's no good, the stuff just tastes like crap.

    OTOH, any pop connoisseur can absolutely tell the difference between cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup, no matter what ADM tries to tell people. It has a much "brighter" taste. Artificial sweeteners don't quite taste the same, either. The worst, of course, being aspartame which has been stored too long in a warm environment…

  21. Brett,

    drink what you like. You don't like booze, you don't lose any points in my book. And don't drink it solely for it's heath benefits if you don't like it. Leave more for the rest of us who do like it.

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