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Science & Technology

If It's Pricey, It Must Be Tastier, And Other Lies Our Brains Tell


Question for you - why are so many of us convinced that Coca-Cola taste better than Royal Crown or the Safeway brand?

PAUL BLOOM: And it does. Perrier taste better than regular water so long as you know it's Perrier.

SIMON: That's Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist. When it comes to branding, he says that companies like Coca-Cola depend on that simple human quality that we believe something is better because we are told that it is. Guy Raz, host of the TED Radio Hour had a few questions for Paul Bloom.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: How do human beings decide what's valuable and what's not?

BLOOM: So you could value things for different reasons. You could value them because of their utility. You know, so golf clubs can - you play golf with them. But things get value in other ways as well. And often they get value because of their history. So the golf clubs, if they were owned by John F. Kennedy, would sell for a lot. We get pleasure sometimes from knowing what something is and knowing where it came from. And our experience is transformed in that way.


BLOOM: Even the most seemingly simple pleasures are affected by our beliefs about hidden essences. How do you get adults to really enjoy wine? Pour it from an expensive bottle. This was recently done with a neuroscientific twist. They get people in an fMRI scanner, and while they're lying there, through a tube they get to sip wine. In front of them on a screen is information about the wine.

Everybody of course drinks exactly the same wine. But if you believe you're drinking expensive stuff, parts of the brain associated with pleasure and reward light up like a Christmas tree. It's not just then you say it's more pleasurable, you say you like it more - you really experience it in a different way.

RAZ: OK, so I recently had the best cup of coffee of my life. And the barista had, like, a handlebar mustache, but he's telling me about this single origin been from Maui and the name of the person who roasted it the day before and the water he pours over the grounds is...

BLOOM: Yeah.

RAZ: Like, 197 degrees. And he hands me this cup and he says, this is going to be the best cup of coffee of your life...

BLOOM: Yeah. Yeah.

RAZ: And you know what? - he was not lying.

BLOOM: He was not lying, but having told you all this, it got you in the state where you were ready to appreciate it.

RAZ: What if he served me Folgers crystals having told me all that?

BLOOM: Right. So it's a really good question what the limits are of our expectations and beliefs. So if someone served you really awful coffee after all of that spiel, I think that we do have sense organs for a reason and we could say, boy, you know, you really oversold this, this is not that good.

But we are, given all that, swayed by our beliefs. And it's not clear to me that this is irrational. In general, you could be wrong about facts about the world, it's harder to say that you're wrong about pleasure.

SIMON: Psychologist Paul Bloom speaking with Guy Raz, host of the TED Radio Hour. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.