David White wants wine lovers to relax about those studies purporting to show that even wine experts can be systematically fooled about what their tasting. The problem is not wine tasters but our perceptions generally; we are easily fooled when our environment is manipulated or when expectations are disrupted.
Consider a 2012 study from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. By giving an extreme makeover to a Hardee’s, researchers discovered that people will eat less but enjoy their food more when at a fine-dining establishment instead of a fast-food joint. A 2006 study led by John Bohannon, a biologist and science journalist at Harvard University, found that most people can’t distinguish pâté from dog food.
Does this mean that Michelin-starred restaurants should replace pâté with Purina Puppy Chow and start serving Hardee’s Patty Meltdowns? Of course not.
White attributes this to our tendency to make mistakes and the inherent subjectivity of taste preferences. But there are deeper reasons why perceptions are easily fooled.
Our brains are designed to rely on contextual clues. Change the context and even ordinary perceptions become unreliable. In the end, it’s a good thing our expectations play such a large role in what we perceive—it helps us adapt quickly to normal situations so we can focus attention elsewhere. If expectations did not influence what we perceive, every moment would be new, every change in our environment a revelation.
The unreliability of wine tasters is only in part about the subjectivity of preferences; variations in how contextual clues are handled are equally important.