Are Italian Wine or Swiss Chocolate Really Better? A Revealing Taste Test

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Can Chinese chocolate taste better than those incredibly delicious morsels from Switzerland, the center of the chocolate universe? Can cheap wine from India taste better than that pricy stuff from California's Napa Valley?

That depends on what you know, and when you learned it, according to a new study that also shows, once again, just how easy it is to fool the human brain.

Marketing researcher Keith Wilcox and colleagues at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., conducted a series of experiments showing that a little information can have the opposite of the desired effect if it is delivered after a taste test instead of before. In a nutshell, here's what the study, to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, says:

Tell someone the chocolate they are about to taste came from Switzerland, and sure enough, they will like it better than the chocolate from China. Tell that same person where the chocolate came from just after they've tasted it, and they will swear the stuff from China tastes better.

Ditto for wine.

Wilcox, who considers himself a consumer psychologist, said during a telephone interview that the research shows that the information changed the person's "actual perception of taste" depending on whether it was presented before or after the taste test. A total of 528 students took part in the experiments, and they really did like China's chocolate better than the premium stuff -- but only if they learned of its origin after tasting it, he said.

And 64 customers at a Boston liquor store said they preferred wine from India, not known for its great vineyards, to wine that purportedly came from Italy, which produces some very fine wines indeed -- though, again, they were not told the origin of either until they had sampled it.

But here's the punch line: none of the chocolate came from Switzerland or China. It came from Trader Joe's, and the same chocolate was used in all the experiments. The wine was "ambiguous in terms of taste," according to the study. It sold for $15.99 per bottle.

Why would being told the origin immediately after the taste test alter the perception of quality? Wilcox said the element of surprise might be part of the reason. During the peer review process, some reviewers thought economics might have figured in more than the timing of the information, but Wilcox insists that isn't so.

"People may have expected the price to be lower, but if it was really just an expectation of lower price we would have expected them to prefer the Chinese chocolate both before and after" the taste test, he said. If they knew the chocolate was from Switzerland before tasting it, they liked it better than the chocolate from China, even though it was exactly the same candy.

But if they were told the origin just after tasting the chocolate, they preferred the dark stuff from China over the chocolate from Switzerland, even though it was really the same stuff.

The participants who tasted the chocolate before they knew where it came from probably really thought both pieces were about the same. But when they learned one came from China, they would have expected it to taste inferior to the famous stuff from Switzerland, and "it was much better than they would have expected it to be," Wilcox said.

Thus they judged the "Chinese" chocolate tastier, even though it was the same stuff.

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