Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Budweiser, balsamic vinegar and the effect of expectations on our biased view of the world

Would you willingly mix balsamic vinegar with your Budweiser? yes in certain conditions, explains Professor of Behavioral Economics Dan Ariely in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

The Muddy Charles is one of MIT's two pubs and the place of Ariely's experiment. Students that dropped by were offered two small free samples of beer, one labeled A and the other labeled B. Beer A was regular Budweiser whereas Beer B was a special mix called “MIT Brew”, two drops of balsamic vinegar for each once of beer. After tasting the samples, participants were offered a free large glass of the beer of their choice.

Most of the participants that knew nothing about the vinegar before tasting the beers chose Beer B, the vinegary beer. But those that were offered more information before the tasting (Beer A was a commercial brew, Beer B had a few drops of balsamic vinegar in it) would wrinkle their nose at the vinegary brew and request Beer A instead. They believed beforehand that Beer B was going to be bad and after tasting it, they actually found it bad.

Now what happens if the presence of vinegar is revealed after tasting the samples instead of before? Can initial sensory perceptions be reshaped with new knowledge or is it too late to change the perceptions once they are established?

It turned out that the participants to this new version of the experiment liked Beer B as much as those that knew nothing about the vinegar. Moveover, when asked whether they would like to make the “MIT Brew” themselves, they were willing to add the right amount of vinegar to their beer. Like the first group, they tasted the vinegary brew blind without any pre-conceived expectations and they actually liked the taste of it so they didn't mind giving it another try.

What happens is that our brain is always refining and distorting sensory information in order to construct a simpler picture of the world. If our brain has tried to represent everything as accurately as possible, we would be completely paralysed by information. Moreover, it cannot start from scratch at every new situation. Instead, it must build on what it has seen before so we can interact with our environment more decisively and make better sense of our complicated surroundings.

So next time you make a decision, be realistic, it's 100% biased.

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Anonymous said...

That penultimate paragraph is a whopper.

Yes, most people "refine and distort information" in order to construct a simplified worldview. But while acknowledging this impulse to engage in lazy thinking, I cannot agree with the conclusion that everyone would otherwise be defeated by 'paralysis of analysis,' or that engaging in premiseless thinking is impossible. If that is true, we really are in dire straits. It may require more effort to interact with one's environment decisively and to make sense of complicated surroundings when armed with a full data set, but it sure beats the epidemic 'certainty of ignorance'—and its consequences.

We should be careful, lest our brains and thoughts become as malleable as the grapes, casks and processes involved in winemaking. Let truth be our guide.

kyn_a said...

Really cool post! Also, I need to try that out!