The price tag feel-good factor

20 January 2008


I'm sure most of us are guilty of occasionally indulging in an expensive treat - whether that's a new pair or shoes or a bottle of pricey wine - because frankly a little bit of luxury makes us all feel good...

Scientists have now discovered that this definitely is the case, and that even if you think you are paying more for something when in reality you aren't, you might still get that same feel-good effect.

Studies have already shown that advertising and marketing can manipulate customers into thinking perfumes labelled as being exclusive and expensive actually smell nicer than cheaper perfumes. Now a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University decided to see what is going on inside our brains when we think we are spending lots of money.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the team looked inside the brains of volunteers who were given what they were told were five different glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon wine to sip. In reality, what they were given were three wines priced at around 2 Pounds, 15 Pounds and 45 Pounds. The cheapest wine was served twice, once in its original packaging, and again but this time masquerading as a wine worth more than twenty pounds. The most expensive vintage was also served up in the guise of a five Pound bottle of plonk.

It seems that this label-swapping trick actually worked. The volunteers said that the cheaper wine tasted much nicer when they thought it was more expensive, and vice versa for the pricier wine when they thought it was cheaper.

And it turns out this price tag feel good factor also has a measurable effect on the brain. When the volunteers were sipping on wines they thought were more expensive - whether or not they actually were - there was increased activity in a part of the brain called the medial orbito-frontal cortex, which is thought to be responsible for judging the pleasantness of an experience. This part of the brain didn't light up nearly as much when they were drinking wines labelled as being cheaper.

So it seems that price can act like a sort of placebo on the human brain - because we expect things that cost more to taste better and we convince ourselves that they actually do.

Overall, it's a rather fascinating but scary insight into the human brain and how modern advertisers can manipulate us into parting with our cash...


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