Nice Wine ... Or Is Your Brain Tricking You?

If you tell people the wine in this decanter is more expensive than it really is, they may like it more. (Photo: Igor Klimov/Shutterstock)

If you truly want your guests to be impressed with the wine you serve, you don't have to buy an expensive bottle. All you have to do is tell them it cost a lot. So says a recent study.

Researchers from the INSEAD Business School and the University of Bonn in Germany gave wine to 15 men and 15 women in a controlled setting. Participants were put in a brain scanner and were given one milliliter of wine through a tube. Before they were given the wine, they were told the price. Then they were given that same wine again, but they were told the wine had a different price. Each time they were asked to rate how good they thought it was.

The subjects said the higher-priced wine tasted better than the cheaper one, even though they were the same wine. Their results were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The price of good taste

This isn't surprising. High price is often associated with better taste and quality. But now there's science to back it up: According to their brain scans, the study participants believed that the wine that they were told was more expensive was better.

Researchers found that the medial prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum — parts of the brain associated with reward and motivation — were activated when a high price tag was announced. "Ultimately, the reward and motivation system plays a trick on us," said INSEAD post-doctoral fellow Liane Schmidt in a statement.

In many ways, the study reinforces Marketing 101. Make someone believe something has value and they will want it more, even if it isn't truly worth what you think. When it comes to wine, though, it's just one of the factors that can trick someone into thinking a wine is better than it is.

And it's not just price that can fool you

The circumstances you're drinking under can affect your perception of a wine, too. When you're having a good time with friends or out on a date, the wine often blends into the enjoyment of the entire experience and you think, "This is a pretty good wine." Drink that same wine under a difference circumstance, and it might be less enjoyable.

Then there's what's written on the label. Another study showed that descriptions on a bottle can "alter consumer emotions, increase their wine liking and encourage them to pay more for a bottle." If there are a lot of positive sensory descriptors or a lovely history of the winery on the back label, people tend to think more of the wine.

I often say that wine isn't that complicated. Drink what you like and don't worry about the price, what's popular or what others might think of your choice. But our brains are complicated, and apparently they can trick us into liking a wine more under various circumstances.

That's not such a bad thing, after all. I'd rather be enjoying my wine than not, wouldn't you?