05 May 2008

Sour Beer Study

Apologies to A Good Beer Blog for borrowing the title. I've been reading Dan Ariely's book on behavioral economics Predictably Irrational. In one chapter, Ariely describes a study at an MIT bar (Muddy Charles) in which they fed patrons a special "MIT brew" which was in fact Budweiser or Sam Adams laced with balsamic vinegar. Those who weren't told what the special ingredient was liked the beer better than did those who were. A third group who was told about the inclusion of vinegar after drinking but before offering an opinion. They liked the beer about as much as the first group (those who weren't told at all). This seems to indicate that our perceptions of taste are affected by foreknowledge, but it isn't a case of "poseur-ism" (i.e., people saying they disliked something only after finding out what was in it).

I'm not sure if admitting you like beer with balsamic vinegar has any stigma attached to it, so this doesn't really measure snobbism. For beer geeks, giving them a blind-labeled Anheuser-Busch product would be the test. Still, as most of us don't taste blind, it does suggests that expectations are influential (not a surprise to many of us, I'm sure). It also made me want to try beer with balsamic vinegar. Two drops per ounce was the recipe.

There's another chapter in the book uses the Carolina Brewery as part of a test to observe ordering behavior as a gauge of the need for uniqueness. The upshot was that customers at the same table went out of their way to order different beers from one another. (The researchers watched to make sure this was not a case of wanting to share.) Satisfaction was higher when orders were taken privately and people just ordered what they wanted. Ariely claims that in Hong Kong, diners in a group will have a tendency order the same dish regardless of what they really want, the opposite of in the US. They don't want to be unique. I personally wouldn't think twice of ordering what someone else has, but I pretty much always order one of the specials.

Anyway, Predictably Irrational is a pretty interesting book if you're into that sort of thing (economics that is, not beer).

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