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magic hatWine tasters have come in for their share of ridicule as the result of studies that seem to show we can be easily confused about what we are drinking. Foodies are now getting the same treatment.

In the video, two Dutch pranksters sneak into a large food-industry expo in Houten, The Netherlands. (The video doesn’t name the event.) There, the duo ask exhibitors and attendees to sample their “new, organic alternative to fast food” from their “high-end restaurant.” In reality, they are serving up cut-up pieces of what appears to be McDonald’s fare including muffins, burgers and nuggets.

Presented with bite-size samples attractively arranged on a platter with serving toothpicks, the patsies in this little experiment react with effusive praise.

Happily, unlike most media treatments, this story at NPR’s The Salt adopts the proper skepticism about what this shows.

(While the pranksters are clearly gleeful about duping people whom they describe as culinary or organic “experts,” we don’t really know who they are or whether they consider themselves “foodies,” as much of the coverage has styled them.)

Furthermore, the article raises an issue that is seldom discussed in these kinds of articles:

Research has found that when you tell people that what they are eating or drinking is a high-end product, they won’t just say that it tastes better than a cheaper product — their brains will actually experience it as better.

In one study, researchers gave subjects wine to sample and scanned their brains using an fMRI scanner. The subjects all drank the same wine twice. But on one occasion, they were told it was a $90 bottle, while another time they thought it was a $10 bottle.

Not only did these subjects report that the wine tasted better when it was presented as a much pricier vintage, but their brains reacted differently, too. Scans showed increased oxygen and blood flow to the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain believed to play a role in how we experience pleasure in food and other types of rewards.

In other words, how a food is branded really does seem to affect how we perceive it on a neurological level.

 

Apparently, we are wired to allow expectations to influence what we experience. This result is reinforced by experiments using other sense modalities. We know, for instance, that stroking a fake hand placed in your field of vision and your real hand at the same time can fool your brain into thinking the fake hand is yours. But as recently reported in the New Yorker, when researchers using cotton swabs simultaneously stroked a real tongue and a rubber tongue placed within the subjects field of vision, subjects experienced what was being done to the fake tongue. Subjects watched lemon juice being applied to the cotton swab stroking the fake tongue, and they experienced the flavor of lemon even though the lemon was applied only to the fake tongue. The swabs stroking the real tongue were soaked in water.

So the problem of our senses being influenced by what we believe is not peculiar to wine tasting. Evolution has shaped our sense of taste to guide us to seek the food we need to survive, while avoiding harmful foods. Expectations help us do that by limiting our need to experiment which might be deadly.

Does this mean that some degree of objectivity is impossible. Not at all. Professional wine and food tasters have to be aware of the kinds of bias that can influence their judgment. But once we are aware of it those biases can be controlled at least up to a point. The expectation that the price of a wine or the lovely setting and good company might be influencing my judgment can cause me to take a second, more critical look at a wine. When I enter a high-end tasting I know from experience that several of the wines will disappoint. That knowledge tends to stanch the “oxygen and blood flow to the medial orbitofrontal cortex”. Expectations that warrant caution and increased scrutiny are expectations nonetheless and they influence judgment as well.

Experts are no different from anyone else in their susceptibility to cognitive bias. Where they (may)  differ is in their commitment to the pursuit of the truth. Casual wine drinkers and foodies can happily allow their expectations to govern their experience. After all, enjoyment is enjoyment whether it is subjectively induced or not. However, presumably, those who take taste seriously and want to understand it, and who have the proper training and experience, take steps to reign in cognitive bias—at least that should be their moral commitment.

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