David McRaney explains the psychology of tasting — in particular, how what we expect affects our perceptions in tasting wine and cheese, but also when engaging in other sensory experiences. Excerpt:
So is the fancy world of wine tasting all pretentious bunk? Not exactly. The wine tasters in the experiments above were being influenced by the nasty beast of expectation. A wine expert’s objectivity and powers of taste under normal circumstance might be amazing, but Brochet’s manipulations of the environment mislead his subjects enough to dampen their acumen. An expert’s own expectation can act like Kryptonite on their superpowers. Expectation, as it turns out, is just as important as raw sensation. The build up to an experience can completely change how you interpret the information reaching your brain from your otherwise objective senses. In psychology, true objectivity is pretty much considered to be impossible. Memories, emotions, conditioning, and all sorts of other mental flotsam taint every new experience you gain. In addition to all this, your expectations powerfully influence the final vote in your head over what you believe to be reality. So, when tasting a wine, or watching a movie, or going on a date, or listening to a new stereo through $300 audio cables — some of what you experience comes from within and some comes from without. Expensive wine is like anything else that is expensive, the expectation it will taste better actually makes it taste better.
Note that it’s not the case that all wine tastes the same. Some wine really is superior to other wines. The problem is, it’s very hard to disentangle your expectations from your actual experience. And not just with wine.