Now, finally, we know why sea hamburgers taste better than crab cakes. Shane Frederick, Professor of Marketing at the Yale School of Management, along with Leonard Lee of Columbia Business School and Dan Ariely of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, recently conducted an experiment that tested people’s preference for a beer concoction, affectionately called the “MIT brew.” The brew is a mixture of regular beer with a few drops of balsamic vinegar – a flavoring that, although it sounds disgusting, can actually improve the taste of the beer.
Preferences are influenced by expectations of an experience rather than by the experience itself
The experimenters conducted taste tests using the MIT brew with three groups at a local pub: the first did a blind taste test of two samples; the second was told that one of the samples had balsamic vinegar in it before they tasted the brews; and the third was told that one of the brews had balsamic vinegar in it after their tasting. Each group was then asked about their preferences. It seems obvious that those with information about the balsamic vinegar would have a lower preference for the MIT brew when compared to those who did a blind taste test. But how might the timing of this revelation affect preferences?
The authors found that more people preferred the MIT brew in both the blind taste test as well in the scenario when they were told about the flavoring after tasting the samples (59% and 52%, respectively). More importantly, they found that the preference for the MIT brew amongst those informed prior to sampling was significantly lower – only 30%. This suggests that preferences are influenced by expectations of an experience rather than by the experience itself. The authors draw parallels with creative labeling by their mothers of crab cakes as “sea hamburgers,” which, to children, sound far more palatable.
A brand’s identity may change consumers’ experiences of the product
The authors concede that sensory perception is a complex topic and may be influenced by the timing of the judgment and expectation bias. Prior knowledge of the secret ingredient may have led respondents to attribute the negative aspects of their ambiguous experience to the presence of the balsamic vinegar. They also note that a single positive taste experience may not permanently change expectations. That said, their results could have significant implications for marketing professionals: it could most obviously inform the methodology of market researchers setting up surveys. Or, for product managers, knowing that a brand’s identity may change consumers’ experiences of the product may be crucial in the development of promotions.
These results suggest that not only do our expectations about an experience affect our perceptions after the fact, but they fundamentally change the experience itself. As it turns out, “sea hamburgers” don't just sound better than crab cakes, they actually taste better too.