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.
Chocoholics might be offended by this bit of trickery, but they are probably safer prey than wine enthusiasts, who can become rather unpleasant when someone suggests that wine from India might be just as fine as wine from Italy. Wilcox said India was chosen for the experiment because another study indicated that the country is an "emerging" wine producer with considerable promise.
"There are certain regions in India that actually have a perfect climate for growing grapes," he said. But your local liquor store probably doesn't have a single bottle of wine from India.
So, as expected, the patrons (ages 21 to 72) who were told where the wine came from before taking part in Wilcox's taste test liked the wine from Italy better than the wine from India. But when other participants learned the origin immediately after tasting the wine, they liked the wine from India better. Maybe it tasted better than they would have expected, so it seemed tastier, as Wilcox suggested.
Can we really be that easy to fool? Yes, according to other researchers. Several studies have shown that knowing the cost of an item can influence judgment, because if it's more expensive it must be better, right? And meat that's 75 percent lean is a lot healthier than meat that's 25 percent fat. And expensive wine must be tastier than cheap wine.
Not according to restaurant critic Robin Goldstein, editor of the Fearless Critic and a frequent contributor to several publications. Goldstein, who holds degrees in neurology, philosophy and law, published a study in the Journal of Wine Economics (there really is such a journal) that involved several hundred participants.
The study maintained that expensive wines are overrated, a claim that is consistent with another study showing that the label counts more than the contents when it comes to deciding which bottle to buy.
Goldstein, however, came under attack from several quarters, including the editorial page of the Boston Globe. When one treads across the wine field, one must tread with caution.
Wilcox, who sounds like he knows a bit about fine wines, said the problem when it comes to judging wines is that we don't all approach the subject on the same plain.
"I think the average consumer's taste buds just aren't that refined," he said. "What the connoisseur might consider to be a high-end wine that should cost a lot of money isn't necessarily going to translate to the average consumer's taste."
Some of us, apparently, will be quite happy when the wine from India finally arrives.