science

PPFF #133: Taste

Good morning,

I remember many years ago, having the TV on and mindlessly flicking through the five channels on offer in the UK, probably on a Saturday afternoon, lazing around and/or trying to cure a hangover when I stumbled upon a re-run of a short programme where the presenter took to the streets and invited random passersby to come and taste different wines or ice cream (or any other edible products) from different brands of varying perceived qualities. Being mischievous, I guess ultimately to be entertaining to a wider audience, the presenter would either swap or give out the exact same wine in different packaging to the unsuspecting participants and ask them to give a rating on each. As expected (or not), most people rated the wine generally perceived to be the most expensive the highest and so on and so forth. It was quite a devious stitch-up, of course, and when the presenter revealed that what they had just tasted were exactly the same, these poor, miserable sods were either in disbelief or dead embarrassed (or both) – all the while I was chuckling at their stupidity of not being discerned enough to be able to tell the difference and their pretentiousness for wanting to appear to have better taste that they actually did, with a good dose of ridicule and judgment on my part, which in my mind they obviously deserved.

Little did I know the joke was on me (and other viewers who adopted the same view); a number of researches in the recent few years (e.g. Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response) have proved that perception alone actually changes our body’s response to external sensory stimuli, and in the case of that TV progeamme, perception changes the taste that we experience.

Take this study for example, titled “The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips“, which published the results of this experiment where research subjects were invited to taste Pringles crisps (the blandest crisp/cake/chip imaginable) and spit out to give a rating on how crisp/fresh they were. The twist here was that the participants wore a headset to which their own crunching sound was fed from a nearby microphone. Whilst all the crisps were of exactly the same freshness/crispness (as consistent as quality-control of the then-owner, Procter and Gamble could have them), the volume and pitch of the crunch were carefully controlled and varied from one participant to another. They were then asked if all the crisps were the same; nearly all of them reported that they were different in their freshness. The research conclusion was that the Pringles with the loudest or highest pitched crunches were perceived to be fifteen percent fresher than those with the softest crunches.

And here’s a non-lab-based example, instead of sound, of colour affecting taste. Apparently in 2011, the Coca-Cola Company (or CCC) released in the US special edition white-coloured Coke cans to raise funds for endangered polar bears. Soon after the release the cans were recalled, however, when consumers complained that the CCC had also changed its formula. The CCC later claimed they did no such thing.

Being a little carried away, I managed to dig up this anecdotal evidence in someone’s blog, mainly about racism but I thought the following was pertinent to this whole perception thing:

“I once had a voice-over job offer rescinded because when the director saw me in person, she suddenly claimed my speech had a Chinese accent — despite having heard my tape and claiming my American voice was exactly what she needed only a few minutes earlier.”

This was from an ethnically Chinese, American traveller.

I know this is a lot to read/digest on a Friday but take this away if nothing else; if you happen to be serving a wine of a universally accepted inferior quality to your guests tonight, pour the content into a fancy looking carafe, preferably with lots of bends and curves, which would add a perception of exquisiteness. The wine will actually taste better as long as the guests don’t see the cheap bottle from which the wine was poured. But if you’re serving a decent enough wine, leave the wine in the bottle and make sure your guests see it.

Have a good Friday – believe/perceive that it is a good one, it will be.

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