Don't judge something by its label

PHOTO: Don't judge something by its label

My wife and I recently had to choose some wine to give to a friend.

Neither of us know much about wine, so we made our choice based largely on price.

We bought a bottle that was somewhat more expensive than the modestly priced ones.

Because if you pay more, you get a better wine, right?

Perhaps not.

Reassuringly expensive

A 2008 study by the American Association Of Wine Economists, involving more than 6,000 blind tastings, found only a small correlation between the price of a wine and its perceived quality ­ and it was a negative correlation.

In other words, when people tasted different wines without knowing their prices, they tended, on average, to enjoy the more expensive wines slightly less.

In another study, conducted by the California Institute of Technology in the United States in 2007, some neurologists found that people enjoyed wines more if they believed them to be expensive.

For example, a wine labelled with a US$45 price tag was considered far superior to the same wine labelled as US$5.

The tastings for this study took place inside a brain scanner which showed that the participants in the test did not merely claim to enjoy the expensively labelled wines more; they really did enjoy them more.

Great expectations

These studies, and other similar ones, suggest that people genuinely enjoy higher-priced wines more than modestly priced ones - but only because they expect to enjoy them more.

This is a useful thing to know.

It means that whenever you host a dinner party, you can save yourself a whole lot of money by buying an ordinary wine and pretending that it is a fancy one.

It is not just wine, either.

Lots of things are (genuinely) perceived to be of high quality simply because they have an impressive label, price tag or brand name.

For example, studies have shown that cinemagoers' enjoyment of a film is significantly influenced by their prior expectations about its quality; and that increasing the price of an energy drink can improve its effectiveness in helping people to solve puzzles.

Labels for people

In a similar way, the labels that get applied to people can alter - either for good or for bad - the way we perceive them.

In a classic psychology experiment, conducted by Harvard professor Robert Rosenthal in the 1960s, teachers were told that a special IQ test had revealed that certain young pupils (labelled spurters) were likely to make great intellectual progress during the course of the year.

This was untrue.

The "spurters" had actually been selected randomly.

But during the course of the year, they really did make significantly better progress than their classmates.

Their teachers expected them to do well; and they did do well.

Rosenthal did further research to try to understand why this happened. He discovered that the teachers interacted differently with the so-called spurters than they did with the other pupils.

They gave them more encouragement, more time to answer questions, better feedback, more nods, more smiles and more friendly pats on the shoulder.

There is a lesson here for all of us.

The labels that we apply to people influence the expectations we have of them; our expectations influence the way we interact with them; and the way we interact with them influences the way they respond to us.

When the labels are negative, this can create problems.

As soon as we label somebody as stubborn, selfish, boring or unreliable, we begin to have negative expectations of them and would interact with them in negative ways.

Small wonder, then, that we continue to be disappointed with them.

Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

This article was first published on MONTH DAY, 2014. Get a copy of Mind Your Body, The Straits Times or go to for more stories.