Many years ago, I worked for a time as a bartender. During slow parts of the business day, I would clown around with customers, playing games, exchanging jokes, card tricks and anything else that might provide some entertainment. One game I enjoyed was 'guess the soft drink.'
To play the game, the customer would close his eyes. I would lay three glasses on the bar: one filled with 7-Up, one with Pepsi and one with ginger ale. With eyes still closed, the customer would take a sip from each glass and try to identify the beverage.
No one believed they would have difficulty distinguishing between beverages until they actually tried to do it. Invariably, they were shocked to discover that they struggled to identify the drinks. Sometimes they would accused me of pulling a fast one on them. They would demand palate cleanses between sips and taste the drinks repeatedly, but it was all to no avail. Without the sensory and perceptual scaffolding provided by the knowledge of what they were drinking, they could not distinguish between these three beverages. It was all sweetness and carbonation with perceptions of the familiar subtleties of flavor lost.
I thought about my informal experiment in connection with a piece in today's NY Times. Edward Dolnick writes about several experiments that demonstrate the powerful influence expectations exert on perception.
Here's a brief excerpt:
Expectations are everything. In one recent test, psychologists asked 32 volunteers to sample strawberry yogurt. To make sure the testers made their judgments purely on the basis of taste, the researchers said, they needed to turn out the lights. Then they gave their subjects chocolate yogurt. Nineteen of the 32 praised the strawberry flavor. One said that strawberry was her favorite flavor and she planned to switch to this new brand.
The volunteers knew the taste of strawberries perfectly well. That was the problem. The associations that came with the word “strawberry” overwhelmed the taste of chocolate. Read the rest here