The Science of Snobbery
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
by Alex Mayyasi
9 September 2013
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
Given the inexplicable, unintuitive conclusions of this research on wine, thinking about classical music promised firm ground to stand on. Despite the influence of class on classical music consumption and the fact that outsiders do not necessarily recognize and enjoy great music performances, no one believes that Beethoven and their 10 year old cousin play the piano equally well. Surely in just the same way a $2,000 bottle of wine and a $5 bottle are not indistinguishable?
This past week, however, Priceonomics reviewed research that cast similar doubt on our ability to appreciate great performances of classical music.
As we wrote in a more recent post, wine is not bullshit. But the reason that research can seeminglysuggest that our enjoyment of wine, certain foods, and classical music is BS can tell us a lot about snobbery and how we experience the finer things in life, the limitations of expert judgment in any field, and why marketing is so powerful.
Watching Not Hearing
Chia-Jung Tsay was an extremely talented young pianist. She performed at Carnegie Hall at age 16, attended prestigious conservatories, and competed in music competitions. But her success seemed inconsistent. During auditions, she noticed that she did better when she performed live or provided a video than when she submitted an audio recording.
Tsay could have harbored dark suspicions about the judges for the rest of her life. But today she is also a talented psychologist and an Assistant Professor in Management Science and Innovation at University College London, so she set up an experiment to examine the role of visual cues in judging musical performances.
[Tsay took the actual audition recordings of the top 3 finalists from 10 prestigious international classical music competitions and asked a group of participants to select the winners. One group watched a video audition, the second group listened to an audio recording of the same audition, and a final group watched the video audition with the sound turned off.
As her study participants were untrained in classical music, Tsay expected them to do no better at choosing a winner than random chance. This proved true for the first two groups, who chose the winner less than 33% of the time. But to everyone’s surprise, the amateurs did significantly better than chance when watching only a silent video.
Tsay then replicated the experiment with professional musicians and found the same results. Despite their expertise, the musicians also did no better than chance at picking the winner based on audio or video recordings. But when they watched a silent video recording, they too performed dramatically better.
Expert judges and amateurs alike claim to judge classical musicians based on sound. But Tsay’s research suggests that the original judges, despite their experience and expertise, judged the competition (which they heard and watched live) based on visual information just as amateurs do.
Looking Not Tasting
The key to understanding the aforementioned wine research - without concluding that the entire wine industry is a massive conspiracy powered by snobbery to sell identical fermented grape juice - is that just like with classical music, we do not appraise wine in the way that we expect.
In a follow up to our article on the price of wine, Priceonomics revisited this seemingly damning research: the lack of correlation between wine enjoyment and price in blind tastings, the oenology students tricked by red food dye into describing a white wine like a red, a distribution of medals at tastings equivalent to what one would expect from pure chance, the grand crus described like cheap wines and vice-versa when the bottles are switched.
The research is popular, cited regularly in blog posts and articles that either call wine tasting fraudulent or (more commonly) conclude that when it comes to the enjoyment of wine, price tags and perceived prestige trump the physical product.
To get a grasp on what this means, we related how we see the same confusion with food.
Taste does not simply equal your taste buds - it draws on information from all our senses as well as context. As a result, food is susceptible to the same trickery as wine. Adding yellow food dye to vanilla pudding leads people to experience a lemony taste; diners eating in the dark at a chic concept restaurant confuse veal for tuna; branding, packaging, and price tags are equally important to enjoyment; and cheap fish is routinely passed off as its pricier cousins at seafood and sushi restaurants.
Just like with wine and classical music, we often judge food based on very different criteria than what we claim. The result is that our perceptions are easily skewed in ways we don’t anticipate.
Judging in a Blink
It’s unclear what we should take away from these observations. What does it mean for wine that presentation so easily trumps the quality imbued by being grown on premium Napa land or years of fruitful aging? Is it comforting that the same phenomenon is found in food and classical music, or is it a strike against the authenticity of our enjoyment of them as well? How common must these manipulations be until we concede that the influence of the price tag of a bottle of wine or the visual appearance of a pianist is not a trick but actually part of the quality?
To answer these questions, we need to investigate the underlying mechanism that leads us to judge wine, food, and music by criteria other than what we claim to value. And that mechanism seems to be the quick, intuitive judgments our minds unconsciously make.
In a famous experiment, psychologist Nalini Ambadyprovided participants in an academic study with 30 second silent video clips of a college professor teaching a class and asked them to rate the effectiveness of the professor. When she compared the ratings to the end of semester ratings of real students, she found her participants had done astoundingly well at rating the professor off an initial impression - there was an extremely strong correlation of 0.76. Participants were just as effective when watching 6 second video clips and when comparing their ratings to ratings of teacher effectiveness as measured by actual student test performance.
The power of intuitive first impressions has been demonstrated in a variety of other contexts. One experiment found that people predicted the outcome of political elections remarkably well based on silent 10 second video clips of debates - significantly outperforming political pundits and predictions made based on economic indicators. Chia-Jung Tsay’s analysis of classical musician auditions explicitly drew on this idea by providing participants with only 6 second clips of each performance.
In a real world case, a number of art experts successfully identified a 6th century Greek statue as a fraud. Although the statue had survived a 14 month investigation by a respected museum that included the probings of a geologist, they instantly recognized something was off. They just couldn’t explain how they knew.
Cases like this represent the canon behind the idea of the “adaptive unconscious,” a concept made famous by journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink. The basic idea is that we constantly, quickly, and unconsciously do the equivalent of judging a book by its cover. After all, a cover provides a lot of relevant information in a world in which we don’t have time to read every page.
Gladwell describes the adaptive unconscious as “a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.” He quotes psychologist Timothy D. Wilson:
“The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level, sophisticated thinking to the unconscious, just as a modern jetliner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from the human, ‘conscious’ pilot. The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner.”
Our internal computers are powerful but unknowable. They can size up someone’s personality or skill at an occupation in seconds, but we can rarely articulate the basis of our judgments. The desired characteristics in a partner listed by speed daters, for example, rarely match the personalities of the person they connect with.
But this unknowability also makes it easy to be led astray when our intuition makes a mistake. We may often be able to count on the price tag or packaging of food and wine for accurate information about quality. But as we believe that we’re judging based on just the product, we fail to recognize when presentation manipulates our snap judgments.
In follow up experiments, Chia-Jung Tsay found that those judging musicians’ auditions based on visual cues were not giving preference to attractive performers. Rather, they seemed to look for visual signs of relevant characteristics like passion, creativity, and uniqueness. Seeing signs of passion is valuable information. But in differentiating between elite performers, it gives an edge to someone who looks passionate over someone whose play is passionate.
Outside of these more eccentric examples, it’s our reliance on quick judgments, and ignorance of their workings, that cause people to act on ugly, unconscious biases - judging men to be better workers and managers than women, for example, or profiling minorities in police work.
It’s also why - from a business perspective - packaging and presentation is just as important as the good or service on offer. Why marketing is just as important as product.
So are we able to overcome the faults of our intuitions? Or are we forever susceptible to the manipulations of marketers, even in the enjoyment of the things we love and care about most?
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