Snobbery Debunked By Science: It's OK To Order The Cheapest Wine

 @rpalmerscience
on September 12 2013 3:37 PM
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Expensive wines aren't necessarily the most enjoyable ones. Flickr via Creative Commons/lehighvalleypa

Expensive wine isn’t all that great, people judge musical performances not on the sound alone but on what the performer looks like on stage, and your vinyl records actually aren’t better than CDs. Thus sayeth science.

Writer Alex Mayyasi explores research on judgment and snobbery in The Atlantic this week, starting with a study by Chia-Jung Tsay, a University College London researcher (and former concert pianist). This past August, Tsay published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that visual cues play a much bigger role in how we judge musical performances than previously thought.

Tsay took recordings of finalists in classical music competitions, showed them to different groups of people and asked them to pick the winners. One group of volunteers with no training in classical music couldn’t pick the winner at a rate any better than random chance when they heard the audio or watched a video of musical auditions. However, when participants watched a video of an audition without sound turned off, they beat the odds; they could pick the winners. Surely, if she repeated the experiment with trained musicians, the sound alone would be enough for participants to gauge a performer’s ability? Not quite.

“Despite their expertise, the musicians also did no better than chance at picking the winner based on audio or video recordings,” Mayyasi wrote in the Atlantic. “But when they watched a silent video recording, they too performed dramatically better.”

So maybe we’re not such great judges of performance as we might think. But what about judging the quality of audio alone? Turns out, many audiophiles are worshipping a false idol.

Vinyl snobs will proclaim that their LPs deliver a much richer sound than other formats, but audio experts will tell you that a CD recording is much more faithful to the actual sound of a performance (assuming the CD is properly remastered; CDs can be of bad quality if the tracks are merely transferred from an LP). The bumps inside a record groove that give rise to sound may match the instrument near-perfectly, but a record player’s needle will be slightly different from the needle used to record the track, and the record itself may be changed by humidity or other environmental factors. However, records do have an advantage over the songs on an iPod. MP3s are made by slashing most of the subtle sounds out of audio tracks, reducing the size of the file so they don’t take up as much room on your device.

Still, you might insist, there’s a certain “warmth” to your analog music. That fullness is most likely from the imperfect nature of your record player – both the action of the needle moving through the grooves and the sound waves from the speakers will cause the record to slightly vibrate.

“Some people mistake this defect for a virtue,” Stanley Lipshitz, an audio researcher at the University of Waterloo, told Popular Science in 2008.

Surely the palate must be harder to fool. When we judge the quality of wine, it’s hard not to imagine that the more expensive something is, the better it must be. But if the price labels are covered, expense doesn’t translate into quality, it turns out. In a 2008 paper [PDF] in the Journal of Wine Economists, author Robin Goldstein and researchers from the Stockholm School of Economics and Yale University examined more than 6,000 blind tastings to see if money can buy happy taste buds.

But they found the opposite: “the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less,” Goldstein and colleagues wrote.

Even if you cure yourself of wine snobbery and embrace the cheaper side of the wine list (or if that was all you could ever afford), psychology can catch you in a bind. No one wants to look like a cheapskate, so people tend to go for the second-cheapest bottle. But most restauranteurs have already figured this out.

“Restaurant owners will often price the wine they buy cheapest at wholesale as the second-cheapest wine on the menu,” the Harvard Law Record wrote in 2002. “Why? Because people generally don't order the cheapest wine and thus often turn to the second cheapest. Price that one higher, and you get a bigger marginal profit. Presto—restauranteur as microeconomist!"

In the end, you should probably just like what you like, because science shows the price tag or the popularity is hardly proof of superiority. So go ahead and buy the cheapest wine on the menu.

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