Post No.: 0121
Our expectations and preconceptions can shape or override our sensory data. For example, in experiments, unless there are glaring differences in taste between two different wines, the higher-priced wine will be deemed more palatable for most tasters than the cheaper wine in a non-blind taste test, yet in a blind taste test with the same wines, it could be the case that the cheaper wine will be deemed the more palatable one overall! Other biases apart from price include preconceptions about a wine’s region of origin, producer and colour – in other experiments, participants have been fooled into thinking they were tasting a white wine and a ‘jammy’ red wine, even though they were actually tasting two identical wines except one of them was dyed with a red flavourless dye!
Trying to identify flavours when blind tasting is generally more difficult than one might think – yet once we’re told what flavour we should be expecting, we can (claim to) taste it immediately (even when there’s e.g. only 1% fruit juice in a sweet). If you asked a non-vegetarian to have a bite of some minced prime beef fillet but lied and told them that it’s rectum meat or something like that then they’ll likely gag and call it disgusting, or fail to even get it near their mouth at all! Some people believe that certain foodstuffs are horrible tasting… before they admit that they’ve never actually tried it before(!) Our preconceptions will shape our beliefs of the world external to our brains sometimes more than any actual data received from the world external to our brains.
Indeed aroma plays a key role in flavour – but maybe more surprisingly is that factors like colour or the sound of a crunch enhance our expectations of a flavour or texture too. Most people prefer to drink tea from a mug than a paper cup because the extra weight of the mug is associated with a higher quality of product – our automatic intuitions fail to separate the quality of the vessel with the quality of the actual contents, hence we’re fooled. We are even affected by what something is called. Tasting is about the context, how something is served, our expectations, our personal and cultural associations, memories and meanings attached to certain foods and drinks, as well as the five (or more) senses. Learning, memory, associations, motivation, attention, beliefs, expectations, peer and cultural effects, context, our hunger or thirst level and actual sensory cues, and more, all affect our eating choices, experiences and behaviours (e.g. what we deem disgusting or a treat).
The same with anything else, such as the music we like e.g. associating a song with a good or bad time in one’s life, regardless of the song’s actual technical merit (up to a point). So when we judge a song, we’re not just judging it by its melody and harmonies but by what we’ve personally associated it with. Different people have different genetic receptors for bitterness, and younger and older people generally perceive higher pitches of sound differently, for instance, but it’s in the brain where most or all of the interpretation of sensory stimuli happens. We never perceive the world outside our brains objectively, and of course our subjective judgements are biased by our own personal prior experiences, current moods, motivations and so forth.
We even often see people on money saving TV programmes trying different brands of products, blind testing them, and frequently mistaking their usual brand and product (which they’ve experienced many times before) with something else, or vice-versa – some people can be so adamant that they were correct too and they wouldn’t have been convinced they were wrong without the recorded evidence they can look back at! We therefore don’t perceive the world objectively even in such simple and familiar situations where we’re asked to pay direct attention to what we’re judging, never mind situations where we’re not familiar with something and aren’t paying our full attention! Our fuzzy expectations unconsciously change how we interpret everything in the world. And it’s not just ‘some other people’ but everyone.
To try to reduce the influence of preconceptions and expectations – it’s best to present information or a fact without revealing any clues to its origin or anything that may cause people to prejudice it (e.g. who said it), then let them decide if they agree or disagree, like it or don’t like it (this is essentially blind testing, and this is why blinding is important in scientific experiments, where possible, in order to minimise intentional or unintentional biases – read Post No.: 0017). Finally reveal who said it or where it came from (e.g. when asking people to review a product, don’t reveal whether it was made in their own country or abroad, or maybe even hide any branding).
Or if you’re intentionally aiming to influence people’s decisions in a manipulative manner then paint pictures that are full of favourable associations and preconceptions. This is why commercial adverts are generally full of e.g. pretty or handsome people, cute live animals and/or brilliant picturesque landscapes that really have nothing to do with the actual products themselves – the power of suggestion and these favourable associations formed by showing these products and the desirable imagery and sounds both together, affect consumers at an unconscious level).
When we anticipate the future, it actually changes our physiology to prepare us for that future – so expect good feelings and good feelings will tend to happen, and expect bad feelings and bad feelings will tend to happen. People often say that the hardest part of a terrifying thing is the waiting, and that’s because their bodies are already physiologically primed for the terror via anticipation – and one’s imagination can be worse than the reality too. Likewise, the most exciting part of a good thing is often the anticipation of it. Would you rather, as a surprise gift and if your scheduling is completely flexible, choose to go on a city vacation abroad tonight or in a week’s time? Most people would choose the latter because the anticipation is part of the experience too. (It’d therefore be better for you to choose a slow method of delivery when ordering an exciting, non-essential treat bought online!)
In other experiments, if participants consume a meal that they expected would fill them up for a long time then they’ll likely report that it has done so – more surprisingly, their stomachs will apparently empty more slowly too! (And vice-versa if participants expected that a meal wouldn’t fill them up.) Thus if people think they’ve eaten a lot (or not a lot) then that’ll affect the food choices they’ll take for their next meal. How big a portion looks matters to satiety, hence a calorie-dense meal can look relatively small for the amount of calories it actually contains. So our perception of how much we’ve consumed is more important than how much we’ve actually consumed (those with damage to their short-term memory-making ability will eat multiple successive meals if they think they’ve not eaten a meal yet). Therefore paying attention to our food when we’re eating – to what we’re eating and to how much we’re eating – is vital i.e. be mindfully present to the task of eating rather than mindlessly noshing if you want to watch your health.
Anticipation or expectation also affects our resultant opinions in order to confirm the anticipations or expectations we held. Marketing creates these anticipations; although too much anticipation will create a hype that could never be satisfied. Our prior expectations shape our subsequent experiences and level of satisfaction, hence ‘under-promising and over-delivering’ will generally elicit more positive consumer or voter satisfaction than ‘over-promising and under-delivering’, even if the absolute value received from both scenarios were identical. So the perception is what matters to people more than the absolute truth. But although ‘under-promising and over-delivering’ will increase perceived received value – ‘over-promising and under-delivering’ may be the necessary strategy in order to get the sale or vote in the first place. Consumers or voters will be disappointed but at least you’ve closed the sale or are now in power, with ethical and moral questions. But one could maybe equally blame the consumer or voter for being easily (mis)led (e.g. for failing to independently check facts or realise when a promise is unrealistic practically)? Well I suppose one could say fool us once, shame on you; fool us twice (or again and again and again) then shame on us…