Be Less Stupid — October 22, 2013 at 4:11 PM

Does Expectation Influence Decision Making?



At the recent pop-culture convention, DragonCon, This vs That conducted a series of dynamic experiments in human behavior with hundreds of attendees. Just like with our 6-hour series — available here — our goals with these new experiments are simple:

1. Shed more light on how humans navigate through the world and interact with machines and systems.

2. Improve our navigation skills so we make more informed decisions, better decisions, and decisions that improve our health and save us emotional capital, time, money and even our lives.

Does Expectation Influence Decision Making?

DETAILS: In this experiment, we were interested in determining what affect, if any — the amount of information you have and your expectations — has on your decision making abilities. To find out, a group of participants was chosen. Each was asked to taste and and then write down a description of wine  from a $5 dollar bottle, a $25 dollar bottle, a $50 dollar bottle and a $75 dollar bottle.

The video below contains vital visual details, context, and a simply breathtaking rendition of the Harlem Shake performed by the most awesome Star Wars Storm Trooper. Ever! Really.

Before we reveal the the science and the secret at the heart of this experiment, we need to rewind briefly, in order to provide some context.

BACKGROUND: It’s rare for anyone to have an experience that is so unique, that it occurs in a vacuum — such that the experiencer’s reaction is not tainted or colored by how someone else experienced or reacted to it previously. For example, prior to going to a movie, you’ve heard reviews from friends, read reviews on-line, seen commercials on TV, etc. If the reviews you read and heard were positive… you will likely report after the film that you enjoyed it, as well. The same goes for a restaurant you heard good things about. The point is: the build up to an experience colors how your brain interprets the sensations from the experience as you are having it.

There’s another psychological effect at work in our wine tasting experiment. In the write up to a previous experiment, we discussed “priming,” which provides understanding into how a stimulus or experience at point “A”…. can affect your decision making at point “B” — regardless of the amount of time that separates “A” and “B”.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 3.46.17 PMA third psychological principal that is interfering with your ability to make independent correct decisions, is known colloquially as: “too much information.” Because of how our brains have adapted, we tend not to like ambiguity and the absence of facts, which tend to suggest chaos and uncertainty So, when we have a few facts, say the price of a bottle of wine, our brains tend to make a series of instantaneous assumptions and connections to give us a fuller picture. For example, we assume the expensive bottle of wine is better tasting, more complex, made from more valued grapes, processed in a more sophisticated way. Conversely, we assume the $5 dollar bottle will taste like crap and be made from the broken grapes that got stuck to the harvester’s boot.

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 3.04.35 PM

OK. Back the results of the experiment. Here now, a sample of the comments on each of the bottles.

Bottle #1 – $5 Dollars:

  • “Fruity & Delicious”
  • “Has a pleasant aftertaste”
  • “Wouldn’t buy it”
  • “Bitter Aftertaste”
  • “Strong, Lots of flavor. Smooth”
  • “Pungent. Bitter. Strong.”

Bottle #2 – $25 Dollars:

  • “Definitely a darker taste than the first. Hints of cherry”
  • “Smooth. Thinner consistency”
  • “Less of an odor than #1. More of a burn in the mouth than #1”
  • “More bitter. Bitter aftertaste. Smells like plastic.”
  • “Little Bitter finish. Not much complexity”
  • “Slightly more bite. My favorite so far.”

 Bottle #3 – $50 Dollars:

  • “Dry & Fruity”
  • “Smooth. Thinner taste”
  • “Harsh. Bitter. Smells good.”
  • “Slightly stronger Than #1”
  • “Mellow. Mild.”

Bottle #4 – $75 Dollars

  • “Watered down. Good, but less enjoyable than #1”
  • “This one is my least favorite.”
  • “Bitter aftertaste. Favorite.”
  • “My favorite.”

carlo-rossi-paisano-1500mlA SURPRISE REVEALED: The participants did NOT drink wine from four different bottles ranging in price from $5 to $75 dollars. All of the wine came from one $19 dollar jug. And if you know anything about wine, you know this is the only wine which would improve were it served from a box.

This experiment’s results are crazy interesting. Some people decided — when drinking the bottle they thought was the most expensive — that it was their least favorite, while others thought it was their most favorite. Some people described one sample as being “strong with a bitter aftertaste” and another as “fruity and delicious.” And yet — all of the wine was the same.

The reason this happens is a combination of expectation, priming and too much information.

In similar experiments, scientists have had the same results. Results have also been similar in variations on this experiment. In one, rather than making all four wine samples crappy, the wine chosen is very expensive. In another variation, experimenters bought expensive wine and cheap wine and just switched their labels.  Again, descriptions from participants vary as we have seen above.

Penn.and_.Teller-szydercy1Incidentally, I conducted a similar experiment when I was running the series, Bullshit with Penn and Teller, where we replaced expensive and delicately prepared fresh food entrees with crappy frozen “Hungry Man” type meals (that we just made look prettier)… and in a fancy restaurant where the waiter described items as being “locally grown,” “organic,” “farm fresh,” etc… because of the information the customers had, their expectation, and their priming, no one caught on to our ruse.

NOW WHAT? So now that you’re aware of the affect your expectations, priming and the amount of information you have on a subject or situation, you should be better able to recognize when you’re in a situation where these issues could be messing with your ability to make the best choices or decisions for yourself.

If you enjoyed this experiment and the video would you please show your appreciation in one of the following ways? Thanks very much.

1. Sign up to participate in a simple, fun 5 minute on-line experiment.


2. Like us on Facebook.Facebook.002

3. Follow on Twitter @thisvsthatshow

4. Check out our entire 6-hour series.

Special thanks to the Skeptics Track at DragonCon run by Derek Colanduno, who also hosts Skeptic Magazine’s podcast, Skepticallity, for making my appearance possible.

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One Comment

  1. before i even got to the end of the video, i knew that every single wine offered came from the same bottle. partially, it’s because i know you guys too well. partially, it’s because i have no ability to discern ANY difference between any kind of wines. somehow, even though i have oenophiles on BOTH sides of my family, because i’ve been a type-1 diabetic since 1978, i lack that ability.

    in any event, i wish you guys the best and i’m looking forward to FINALLY seeing Mr. Sherwood with his partner, Mr. Mochrie in Austin next february.

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