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You're drinking what you're thinking

Taste is relative – and beauty is largely in the eye of the beer-holder.

Forget the pokies, you’re more likely to win money off your mates in the pub by playing a much simpler game – like getting them to take part in a blind-taste test to see if they can pick their favourite beer.

mike hutcheson - you're drinking what you're thinkingThey’ll tell you they’re absolutely passionate about Steinlager/DB Export/Mac’s Gold/ Heineken/Speight’s/Stella Artois – whatever happens to be their desired drop – and that they’d easily be able to pick it out from the rest.

I’ve seen this done at least a dozen times and can tell you that success will be due more to luck than discernment. No matter how well your mates think they know their chosen brew, when it comes to a comparative tasting their confidence will quail and their taste buds will fail. You can also pull the same trick with wine tasting, or even a Marmite/Vegemite taste-off. The punters might discern subtle differences but the chance of them nailing exactly what they’re tasting is no better than random.

This phenomenon is due to the fact that our perceptions override reality, which has significant implications for advertisers, politicians and aspiring demagogues.

Expectations and aspirations triumph over truth. A great example of this was demonstrated at the University of Bordeaux in 2001. Researcher Frederic Brochet got 57 oenology students to taste glasses of red and white wine, asking them to describe each wine and explain the effects on their palate in as much detail as possible. Their descriptions of the red wine read like an adjectival dictionary. The tasters were fulsome in their notes, detecting typical red wine characteristics such as tannins and even going so far as naming the berries and grapes used.

What Brochet hadn’t told them was that he had simply coloured the white wine with red dye. Not one of them detected it.

In another experiment he asked his subjects to rate different bottles of red wine – one very expensive, one cheap. Although he had put the cheap plonk in both bottles, the wine in the expensive bottles was called ‘complex’ and ‘rounded’, while the ‘cheap’ wine was described as ‘weak’ and ‘flat’. In other words, they were drinking what they were thinking.

In a similar vein in 2007, Reuters reported that researchers in the US found children preferred the taste of food or drink if they thought it was from McDonald’s. Tellingly, three quarters of the children said the french fries in a McDonald’s bag tasted better than those in a plain bag, they even preferred carrots if they came in a McDonald’s wrapper.

There are parallels in many other aspects of human endeavour, particularly when it comes to politics and attitudes around social issues such as race, welfare or religion. Once we’ve made up our minds on a subject, it’s hard for us to change our views.
Joe Keohane, writing in the Boston Globe, says, “James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois calls it the ‘I know I’m right’ syndrome’. He considers it a ‘potentially formidable problem’ in a democratic system. ‘It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs, but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so’.”

Researchers Charles Taber and Milton Lodge showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible for them to accept or correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily”.

It’s very ego-threatening to admit you’re wrong, especially if you’re a doyen of academia, regarded by your peers as a paragon of intelligent and informed analysis. But we are all prejudiced. Our brains aren’t blank slates. Our attitudes and opinions are formed over time and our experiences and associations pre-determine the positions we take when confronted with new issues.

Couple this with the fact that half the world’s population has below-average intelligence and the all-pervasive Dunning- Kruger Syndrome (the idea that people who don’t know enough also don’t know enough to realise that they don’t know enough) and it doesn’t bode well for the future of democracy. You only need to see the success of populist politicians like Winston Peters to realise this is true. Which brings us back to beer tasting – I suggest enjoying a lot of it while trying not to think too much about what you’re drinking.

I promise you – after a while it won’t matter and for a while the world will seem a better place.

Mike Hutcheson is a director of Tangible Media, a former Saatchi & Saatchi grand fromage, and enjoys all brands of beer.