I have a bachelor's degree in psychology, which isn't useful occupationally unless I want to work as an orderly in a prison psych ward.
What it is useful for is understanding some basic underpinnings of behavior, such as why critics don't like your favorite wine, and how wineries get away with charging $500 a bottle.
Have you ever noticed that no fans ever complain about lousy music concerts, yet critics frequently give them poor reviews? Are critics just curmudgeons?
Maybe, but there's a psychological principal at work that's also in effect every single time you buy even a glass of wine.
It's called "cognitive dissonance." I'll try to explain it the way I remember it from my undergraduate days.
There was an experiment in which college freshmen were asked to spend two hours doing a very boring task; putting round pegs in round holes, if I recall correctly.
They were divided into three groups. Some people were paid $20 (this was a lot of money back then). Some were paid $1. And some were not paid at all, but were told they were volunteers. All were told their payment (or non-payment) before they started pegging.
Afterwards, everyone was asked to rate the enjoyment of the task.
Which group do you think said it was the most fun?
I suppose I should make you scroll down or something, to delay the surprise.
OK, here's the answer: The group that was paid $1 found the task most pleasurable. And the group that found it the most boring were the people paid $20.
Why? The answer is "cognitive dissonance," which is the tension of holding two irreconcilable thoughts at the same time.
The task was, objectively, boring. People who were paid $20 could easily explain to themselves why they did it: they wanted $20. They rated the task as the most boring. People who were volunteers could tell themselves they did it to advance science. They found it less boring than the $20 group, but still somewhat boring.
But people who were paid only $1 couldn't explain to themselves why they spent two hours putting round pegs in round holes. Their brain held two dissonant thoughts: "This task is dull" and "I'm only getting $1 for it." The second statement could not be changed. So the brain modified its belief about the first. People decided they were having fun; otherwise they would be fools for agreeing to do it.
You can probably already see how this applies to wine appreciation. But I'll spell it out.
If you're paying for wine -- or food, or concert tickets, or a Caribbean cruise -- your brain knows the price. And you know you're not stupid. So if M.I.A. sounds off-key, your brain can change its evaluation to "charmingly spontaneous."
But the critic sitting in the back row didn't pay for the tickets. He's there to do a job, and his brain knows that. If the concert is bad, that doesn't make him a fool for going.
Think about this: How often do you like the warmup act at a concert? Much less often than the main act, right? Maybe the warmup acts really are much less good -- but also, your brain knows this band is not the reason you paid $60 for these tickets.
I get a lot of free wine, and I pay for wine frequently also. Even though I'm aware of cognitive dissonance, I still think I'm more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to a so-so wine I order by the glass in a restaurant over a wine I taste in a professional setting. I'm paying for it, I'm no fool, it can't be THAT bad.
There are several implications here:
1) Why do fans of a wine (Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, for example) like it more than critics? Simple: they're paying for it.
2) The more money the wine costs, the more powerful the effect of cognitive dissonance. You can freely diss Two Buck Chuck, but that overripe $60 Syrah? It must have some good points. Many Napa Valley vintners understand the implication of this: Charge more, and while the wine might be difficult to sell, people who do buy it will like it more.
3) Why does Robert Parker give higher scores to wines than other critics? To his credit, he is well-known for paying for a lot more wines than any other critic. He chooses what to pay for, he doesn't taste blind, and I submit that even for a man whose palate is as consistent as anyone in the business, cognitive dissonance is at work.
4) Why does wine taste better in the tasting room? There are other factors at work as well, but consider this potential dissonance: "I drove out of my way to get here and chose this winery over its neighbors. Plus I paid a $10 tasting fee." Cognitive dissonance is a good motivator for every tasting room to charge a modest fee. (Sorry, consumers.)
5) Why don't professional critics rush to embrace funky, expressive wines, especially those in niche categories? We don't have to; we don't have the cognitive dissonance of "I paid $12.99 for this no-added-sulfite 'organic wine' and it smells like feet." Mmm, feet.
6) How do the Bordeaux first growths get away with those outrageous release prices -- over $500 a bottle for some? In Hong Kong, people are thinking in Cantonese, "I paid $900 for this wine. And I am no fool. This is so worth it." Cognitive dissonance knows no language barrier.
One last point: You've been reading my blog now for maybe 3 minutes, instead of drinking wine or looking at online porn or calling your loved ones or eating dark chocolate. Think of all the great ways you could have spent that 3 minutes.
Isn't this the most interesting blog you've ever read? Tell your friends. They're no fools either.