The Power of Expectations

Never understimate the power of expectations — particularly unconscious or semi-conscious ones, the ones you might deny if asked about them explicitly. And never understimate the power of cognitive dissonance, also at play in this study, reported in the Boston Globe:

SCIENTISTS AT CALTECH and Stanford recently published the results of a peculiar wine tasting. They provided people with cabernet sauvignons at various price points, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the tasters were told that all the wines were different, the scientists were in fact presenting the same wines at different prices.

The subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better, even when they were actually identical to cheaper wines.

The experiment was even more unusual because it was conducted inside a scanner — the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes — that allowed the scientists to see how the subjects’ brains responded to each wine. When subjects were told they were getting a more expensive wine, they observed more activity in a part of the brain known to be involved in our experience of pleasure.

What they saw was the power of expectations. People expect expensive wines to taste better, and then their brains literally make it so. Wine lovers shouldn’t feel singled out: Antonio Rangel, the Caltech neuroeconomist who led the study, insists that he could have used a variety of items to get similar results, from bottled water to modern art.

The human brain, research suggests, isn’t built for objectivity. The brain doesn’t passively take in perceptions. Rather, brain regions involved in developing expectations can systematically alter the activity of areas involved in sensation. The cortex is ‘cooking the books,’ adjusting its own inputs depending on what it expects.

Our judgment is biased. It seems to me that we rarely acknowledge the breadth and depth of our subjectivity.

I’m reading Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift of Fear, and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence (1997). He defines intuition as our awareness of perception before it hits our judgment — in other words, an awareness at some level of sensory perception unbiased by expectation, knowledge, moral reasoning (I should, I shouldn’t, etc.), expertise, and other subjective mechanisms for denying what our senses notice. Of course, even in the initial “noticing,” there is some judgment, some bias, that causes us to notice something at all, that distinguishes a perception we notice from one we don’t. Even in noticing, we are already comparing what we expect with what we perceive and finding that they don’t  quite overlap. That’s intuition. Too often, de Becker argues (and provides a wealth of examples to demonstrate), we argue ourselves out of our intuition. We, in essence, say that regardless of what my tongue says (or nose, but not in the case of the Cal Tech experiment), this wine must taste better because it costs more. The assumption that expensive = better, and that (false) knowledge that this one is more expensive than that one, make it all but impossible to actually perceive reality.

In the scenarios de Becker outlines, however, the consequences for our almost knee-jerk denial of our perception and our intuition are much more grave than paying big bucks for plonk. We may sense signals that someone will behave violently towards us, but usually we ignore them or deny them, telling ourselves, “He seems like a nice guy,” or “I don’t want to appear rude” or “It’s probably nothing.”

I’ll blog more about de Becker’s book tomorrow. Meanwhile, have a nice glass of wine :-)

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