December is waning, and that means Friday is the first of the new month: time for the Session! This month’s beer bloggery topic comes from The Bake and Brew, with the topic “Against the Grain”:
How much is our taste or opinion of a craft beer affected by what friends and the craft beer community at large thinks? What beer do you love that no one else seems to get? Or what beer do you say “no thanks” to that everyone can’t get enough of?
I can find myself wondering sometimes when I’ve had an extremely popular beer, but haven’t been all that “wowed”…is it me? Am I missing something here? Was there too much hype? Could there be such a thing as taste inflation? If we really want to dive further into this, is it really only “good” if a large portion of the craft beer community says it is or is our own opinion and taste enough?
Everyone loves Frank.
You love Frank.
This is actually a topic I’m pretty interested in from a consumer standpoint (it is, yet again, a topic that might be somewhat weird for a commercial brewery to tackle, but we’re going after that anti-marketing dollar so this is totally on message) (excuse me while I throw up a bit in my mouth). Call it the “hive mind,” whatever: are we autonomous pillars of reason, unmoved by petty things like the opinions of our peers?
No. We’re not. Our brains are fickle, weak little lumps of meat which cannot be trusted. They can’t even pick out a man in a gorilla suit if there are too many basketballs on screen! But you don’t have to take my word for it.
The influence of price
Let’s start with Plassmann H (2008), “Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness,” which can actually be read for free online. They gave participants five wines at various price points, with the trick that the $45 and $10 wines were the same, as were the $10 and $90. They asked participants which wine they liked best, and a fMRI scan confirmed that they were being honest: they liked the “more expensive” wines better. A followup 8 weeks later without the price context gave a much more neutral playing field. They found an increase in activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which handles experienced pleasure, but not any of the areas that deal with taste: participants didn’t actually think it tasted better, they just liked it better.
Now, I’m not scientist. I have two liberal arts degrees and write on the internet. But it’s worth pointing out that their sample size was relatively small — only 20 participants — so I’d consider this a very interesting study but not one about which I’d run around yelling “Aha! Science!”
We conjecture that any action affecting expectations of product quality, such as expert quality ratings; peer reviews; information about country of origin, store, and brand names (especially those associated with luxury products); and repeated exposure to advertisements might lead to effects similar to those identified here.
Again: areas which are relevant to my personal and business interests. Let’s continue.
The influence of expectation
Checking the references on that article lead me to a few other good ones: particularly Lee (2006), “Try it, you’ll like it: the influence of expectation, consumption, and revelation on preferences for beer” and Allison (1964), “Influence of Beer Brand Identification on Taste Perception.” There are some other good sounding articles in there too if you’ve got the time and, more importantly, database access. If you’d like to read them I can verify that UB gives you access (log in here with your UBIT credentials to read Lee, and here to read Allison, also referenced in Lee); other universities and public libraries should be able to help as well.
Did I mention one of those two liberal arts degrees is library science?
Lee deals with “top down” vs “bottom up” processes, which are what you expect and what you experience, respectively. The full text references a bunch of other great articles that deal with how our expectations influence our experiences, and I think I’ve just discovered a nerdier version of the TVTropes black hole. Their study aimed to figure out if brand perception (here I’d use my Not A Scientist degree to say we can extrapolate to also influence by friends, online ratings, etc) affects experience: subjects (n=388) were given two beers, one “regular beer” (Budweiser or Sam Adams) and one “MIT brew”, the first but with balsamic vinegar added. The vinegar slightly improved the flavor, they explain, but more importantly the MIT beer was one that would be seen as something higher end.
Read the footnotes! Footnote 2 explains:
When the control beer was Samuel Adams, we added six drops. When it was the lighter Budweiser, we added four drops. Budweiser was used in the first two experiments, and Sam Adams in the third. We switched after discovering that Budweiser is not a very popular beer among our participants, many of whom even disputed whether it deserves to be called a “beer.”
Emphasis mine. Oh snap!
Subjects were put in one of three groups: not being told about the vinegar, being told beforehand and being told afterward but before they rated the beers. This was so the researchers could see if knowledge could change the actual experiences you have: if you were told afterward but rated it similarly to the unaware group, this would mean that knowledge (or lack thereof) actually changes the way you experience things.
Spoiler alert: this panned out. Disclosure after the tasting did lower the preference of the MIT beer but not significantly (59% vs. 52% of people preferring it), while blind vs before disclosure had a significant difference (59% vs 30%), as did after vs before (52% vs 30%).
The influence of marketing
On to Allison (1964), an older but still cited article (123 times by Web of Science’s count). They sent a six pack to households (n=326) with the labels removed and letters placed on the bottles. Unlike the other studies, this one was actually done for the Carling Brewing Company (now owned by Molson Coors but independent at the time of the study). Three brands of beer were placed in each six pack: always two Carling, with the remaining two being from among two regional brands, one national brand and one “well-known beer brand” (the names of which aren’t disclosed). Participants rated the beer on a scale of 1 to 10 and also “not enough,” “just enough” or “too much” in nine other categories (like carbonation and aroma).
There were no significant differences found in the beers (with the exception of one brand having a significantly higher rating of “just enough” for carbonation). They were then provided with a labeled six pack containing a bottle of each of the five brands used in the study (including the two they hadn’t tried blind), plus a sixth beer. Participants scored “their” brand higher than the others, even though they hadn’t when the bottles were blind. Interestingly, scores were higher overall on the labeled vs blind test: apparently just knowing that the beer was made by a big company increased the perceived quality of it. They conclude that in a blind test participants weren’t able to identify differences between brands, but that differences were apparent in the labeled test: essentially, people ranked the beer on marketing and brand alone.
There are a few ways you can pooh pooh this study: for one, the beer world has changed so much in the past 50 years as to be unrecognizable. You can chortle to yourself about how all beer back then was the same, sex in a canoe, ha ha. I think the value here is less in that the study was done using beer and more for its general message: we are affected by marketing.
I could go on
And I plan to go on, in fact, in a future post. I’ve blathered on long enough now, and the final study (I’ll spoil the lede and tell you it’s McAuley (2013), “From amateurs to connoisseurs: modeling the evolution of user expertise through online reviews”) is one I feel the need to opine on more fully. I think I’ve made my point, though: we are influenced, so easily influenced, moved by the whims of factors we might not be aware of, might despise, but which nevertheless steer our brains in whichever direction they please.
Now isn’t that a cheery thought?