The advantage of knowing your limits of discrimination


A story a while back about ridiculously expensive speaker cables and James Randi's challenge to tell the difference between them and modestly-priced cables reminded me of a conversation I had with a wine-loving friend of mine.

He went on a wine tasting tour and sampled wines of varying quality and price. His conclusion was that he could detect the correlation between price and quality up until about $75/bottle. Beyond that point, the wines all tasted roughly equally great.

Conclusion: There's no point in my friend spending more than about $75 on a bottle of wine. Once you know the limit of your discrimination, you can use it to avoid wasting money. (One might argue that this is one advantage of having a coarse palate: You can get away with cheaper wine!)

Related: Commenter Eff Five notes that researchers have determined that people perceive the same wine as tasting better if they are told that it is more expensive.

Comments (37)
  1. John says:

    Perhaps Microsoft could learn something from this.  For $299, Vista Ultimate is junk.  But for $199, it’s not that bad.  The wow truly does start now.

    [I have to stop being surprised by how quickly a “fun non-technical topic” turns into Vista-bashing. 29 minutes is a new record though. -Raymond]
  2. nathan_works says:

    So did you propose the controlled double blind study with your friend ? I’d love to see that with most wine tastings..

    Though I think we all can agree, most of the two buck chuck varieties are rotgut..

  3. dave says:

    Let that be a lesson to you: never trust software people when they tell you what software "will do" at some point in the future.

  4. scott says:

    Sorry, Raymond, I guess your guests just enjoy a good whine now and again.

    The question is, can you learn to distinguish between high quality wines, or is wine tasting ability a natural talent/limitation?

    Can you drink your way to a more expensive palate?

    I think ignorance is bliss, myself.

  5. Brian Tkatch says:

    Cost of the wine? Bah! Just look at where the wine if from!

    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-08/cfb-fan080607.php

  6. nathan_works says:

    I think Brian is on to something, Raymond, if you want to get back at those Microsoft-Fargo folks..  

  7. Someone You Know says:

    @Brian Tkatch

    The only thing that surprises me about that article is that Cornell University is conducting food studies in Urbana, Illinois, which is the corresponding college town to a completely different university.

  8. keith says:

    Cornell did teach me the best wine value for the dollar (at least circa 1997) was a German import "TJ Riesling".  It was $7 at the time, appears to be $10-14 today.  But, I understand rieslings are not for everyone.

  9. Joshua Muskovitz says:

    You previously noted that food in McDonald’s wrappers taste better to kids.

    My pricing tangent was with the locksmith installing a new deadbolt on my front door. When he tried to upsell me, I pointed out that it only had to be good enough to make the burglar break a window. Anything beyond that was a waste of money.

  10. BCS says:

    Snob: (n) someone who will buy $3.00/cup coffee when they know they like the $.50/cup stuff better.

  11. Squire says:

    An incident related to "ridiculously expensive speaker cables" is described here:

    http://dansdata.blogsome.com/2009/07/06/the-difference-is-as-plain-as-the-ear-on-your-face/

    An audio sample was perceived to be better than another audio sample (both of which pointed to the same file on the server) simply because of the device it was described as having been recorded on.

  12. ram says:

    There was a hilarious episode of the Canadian TV show "Corner Gas" related to this.  One of the characters brings over a bottle of wine to a dinner hosted by an older couple.  The wine is much better (and more expensive) to the cheap stuff they are used to.  After drinking her wine, they realize they can never go back to the dreck they were drinking. Unfortunately its also more $$ they want to spend. The episode is called Pandora’s wine"

  13. configurator says:

    There’s a friend of mine who shouldn’t be allowed to go to the supermarket alone. He always buys the more expensive stuff, and with supermarket brands it’s usually not any better. For several products (cooking oil, hot dogs, milk for example) the supermarket brand is actually better, and it is cheaper to increase sales. Which means if my friend goes alone he overpays for the lesser stuff.

  14. James Schend says:

    The problem with Vista Ultimate is that, when we bought it, we were promised periodic new features and updates (“Ultimate Extras”). After two years, I’ve gotten:

    * One boring robot puzzle game

    * A feature that plays MPEGs as desktop backgrounds

    * About a dozen animated desktop backgrounds

    That’s it. They could have thrown in a copy of Halo 2 or *something*. Sheesh.

  15. Leo Davidson says:

    Ram: Yes, it’s worth keeping in mind that when finding your maximum requirements you’ll probably raise your minimum as well.

    I can’t go back to the cheap headphones I used to use after getting some expensive (but by no means top-of-the-range) ones. I dare not buy an even more expensive pair in case I can hear the difference & get used to it.

    Am I actually happier with the more expensive pair than the past blissful ignorance? I don’t know, but now when I use cheap pairs I’m not happy.

    It’s most annoying when I get home drunk and want to listen to something in bed. After I woke up one morning feeling trapped and about to snap the cables with my hands I decided that sleepy, drunk Leo would have to put up with poor sound. :-)

    As for Vista Ultimate, I bought it to get Media Center + Remote Desktop. I got what I paid for. I don’t understand why anybody expected the Ultimate Extras to be anything significant and I certainly don’t get why anyone based their purchase on that. Win7 Pro gives MC+RD this time so I’ve gone for that instead of Ultimate this time.

  16. Tom says:

    A free copy of <pick your favorite Microsoft consumer product> would have been a fine idea for a Vista Ultimate Extra.  Halo 2, Flight Simulator, Money, Encarta, whatever.

    That’d be turning lemons into lemonade.  James Shenck deserves a commendation for original thinking.

    Not that it’d have saved Microsoft’s consumer products from extinction, though.

  17. John says:

    “29 minutes is a new record though.”

    I would have posted sooner, but I was busy.  Besides, I wasn’t even really bashing it.  All I said that was Vista Ultimate was not worth $299 to me.  Is your friend bashing expensive wine by saying that $75 a bottle is his limit?  I don’t think so.

    On a side note, is your blog software screwy?  I didn’t say “That’s it. They could have thrown in a copy of Halo 2 or *something*. Sheesh.”; they are showing up as attributed to me, but I assume they are your words.

    [Sorry, that was a cut/paste error. I’ll fix it. Your comment was not that bad, but it just opened the gates to others. -Raymond]
  18. Zeev Tarantov says:

    There’s a difference between perceiving a product as being better than a cheaper alternative and reporting that you have perceived it as being better than a cheaper alternative.

    If people chose the high priced wine over cheap wine when they were served in the same bottle with the servitor also not knowing which was which (double blind test), then they have perceived it as being better. If they knew which was the good wine and said they liked the good wine better, they might have just lied to avoid embarrassment over not being able to tell which is the better wine.

  19. This is similar to a discussion starter I often pull out when among artist friends.  If I go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, except they’ve swapped it out with an indistinguishable (to me) copy, am I any worse off?

  20. Will Dieterich says:

    John Cleese has a wine find, wine_for_the_confused or something like that, where he has some people over tasteing wines of various prices and they cannot tell the differences.

    The biggest joke in this area has to be vodka. Here people pay huge amounts of money for the most expensive vodkas and then pour it into fruity or other items that will easily overpower it.  Yes you can tell the difference between a rotgut vodka and a high price vodka when drunk straight.  You get the professional vodka tasters and they tend to pick the cheap stuff when you pour it into a glass of grapefruit, some herb based infusion or even a dirty martini.

  21. rtm242 says:

    No the Penn and Teller bottled water episode has to take the cake…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfPAjUvvnIc&feature=player_embedded

  22. Alan G says:

    Did people really buy Ultimate because of the extras?  I thought they bought it just because it was the most expensive option.  If there had been a Vista Super Duper Gold-plated Enterprise Pro Mega-ultimate edition at a thousand dollars a copy, they would have bought that just because it was the most expensive version.  It’s sort of reverse goldilocks pricing.

  23. Anonymous Coward says:

    A few years ago, after a discussion with an audiophile who said he hated MP3s because they sounded ‘too digital’, I asked him whether he could discern an LP from an MP3 recording of the same song. Anyway, I let him leave his room for a moment, so I could connect his stereo to the computer and set up the first song, the MP3. Predictable reaction. Then I let him leave the room again, but I didn’t disconnect the computer and connect the stereo, but instead I edited the MP3 to apply a low pass filter and a bit of noise. (I listened to his LPs before and knew roughly what they sounded like.) ‘This is how music is supposed to sound!’ So you say this is the LP and the previous one the MP3? ‘Yes, definitely.’ Not a scientific test perhaps, but still funny.

  24. JM says:

    @Anonymous Coward: So to him, the music sounded better with a low-pass filter and some noise, the way LPs sound. That, and he couldn’t distinguish an MP3 you preparated to sound like an LP from an actual LP. Where’s the surprise come in? There seems to be no contradiction in his convictions (like there is in the previous examples), they’re just unconventional.

    In fact, you might do him a favor by setting up the MP3 player to always do this "LP filtering". He could have the best of both worlds! :-)

  25. Mike Dimmick says:

    @Leo Davidson: that would be why Ultimate this time round only costs $20 more than Pro! Additional features: BitLocker/To Go, AppLocker, Boot From VHD, BranchCache, DirectAccess, Federated Search, MUI packs, and Subsystem for UNIX Apps.

    Still, many ‘enthusiasts’ will probably buy this edition even if they don’t even need the features from Pro over Home Premium, just because it’s more expensive and ‘has everything’!

    (Source: http://www.winsupersite.com/win7/win7_skus_compare.asp)

  26. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    @Will Dietrich,

    Mythbusters ran one on the issue of cheap vs expensive vodka. The difference is in how well it’s purified. Presence of higher spirits (propanol, butanol, etc) fouls the taste, and also makes for worse hangover.

    There is also certain taste difference depending on minerals in the water used for dilution.

    I’m not vodka expert; never drink it. Maybe I’m not true Russian.

  27. Dave says:

    Regarded the linked article about the study, that seems like a bogus conclusion. The wine presumably cost $0 to the participants. It is isn’t surprising that participants felt more pleasure being gifted an expensive wine versus a cheap wine. If the participants bore the full cost of the wine, the outcome may have been different but that’s a harder study to do in a controlled environment.    

  28. My limit of discrimination is probably about $20. For that you can get a appellation superieure. There’s also the opportunity cost – for the cost of a more expensive wine, you can also try several from different locales and vineries.

  29. Timothy Byrd says:

    Nathan_works: "Though I think we all can agree, most of the two buck chuck varieties are rotgut.."

    Do you know the history of the Charles Shaw label?  It started because one year the California harvest was exceptional and produced a huge surplus of very good grapes. As a result, there was more high quality juice being turned into wine than certain wineries cared to bring to market. Trader Joe’s made a deal to buy some good juice in bulk and had their own bottling of it done.  So for the price it was a very good wine, that’s why it became a famous and then turned into a cliche.

    Though, harvests vary from year to year, and if there are so many grapes grown that it becomes unprofitable, then production will tend to scale back, so that quality/price ratio isn’t likely to stay up.

    There’s a brief discussion of this in the book "Judgement of Paris".

    — T

  30. Cheong says:

    On a no-so-related note, I found that my ear can’t hear the noise difference between headsets over HKD$120 (my friends tell me I have stoned ear XD), so I can stop spending money for headset with quality above that…

  31. MadQ says:

    Regarding audio cables: CAT5 network cable is a really good option, and very cheap. If I had a million dollars lying around, I’d challenge anyone to prove that their audio cables are better than CAT5.

  32. Worf says:

    MadQ: CAT5 should work… provided you’re not pumping too much power over them. Tens of watts should be about its limit. Try to pump more and the amperage will probably lead to some big losses due to I2R heating.

    A low-power signal they’re great, since they go to 100MHz easy. But power wise, they’re not so good. They can’t handle suge currents very well, nor high voltages (I believe some of the better high power gear can go 100+V and pass serious current (1+A)

    Cheap speaker wire’s often just… lamp cord.

  33. Stephen Jones says:

    Taste develops with practice. The price point limit is the result of what you can afford, not that you wouldn’t be able to distinguish if you spent a lot more.

    So for tea or coffee I will buy the most expensive I can afford (though for coffees both Blue Mountain and the beans that go through some rodents ‘arse before being harvested from the ground are both out of my price range).

    For Sparkling wine however I will only get a Catalan brut Cava, because I don’t have the cash to develop discrimination for the higher levels of French Champagne.

  34. MadQ says:

    Worf: You are correct. I didn’t mention any of that so as not to stray too far off topic. But since, we’re going there anyway… one CAT5 cable is good for anything under 6 fix or so. Add an additional CAT5 cable for every additional 6 feet.

    Lamp cord works well, but my speakers are in a very noisy environment. According to my trusty old gauss meter, EM flux density (bring on the Back To The Future jokes!) exceeds 100mG in some areas. Replacing the plain old cables with CAT5 made quite a difference. Also, my speaker drivers are only rated for a max of 60W, and I never turn up the volume that high.

  35. Peter Bindels says:

    Recently read (somewhere) that a placebo costing $10 per pack was measured to be significantly more effective than a placebo for sale at $1.

  36. Mark says:

    Also, over-the-shelf painkiller in unmarked packets is less effective than the brand leader, even though they have exactly the same active ingredient and dosage.

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