Jonah Lehrer wrote about scientists at Caltech who conducted an amazing study on unsuspecting wine connoisseurs. In this study, the tasters were given “different” cabernet sauvignons. Each bottle of wine came with its “price,” which ranged from $5-$90. Yet, each bottle (shocker!) was actually the same.
The results? Unsurprisingly, the more expensive bottles got consistently higher ratings.
But here is where the experiment gets cool: “The experiment was even more unusual because it was conducted inside a scanner – the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes – that allowed the scientists to see how the subjects’ brains responded to each wine. When subjects were told they were getting a more expensive wine, they observed more activity in a part of the brain known to be involved in our experience of pleasure.”
This study is all about the power of expectations. When people think the good is going to be better, the brain literally makes the wine better.
“What they saw was the power of expectations. People expect expensive wines to taste better, and then their brains literally make it so. Wine lovers shouldn’t feel singled out: Antonio Rangel, the Caltech neuroeconomist who led the study, insists that he could have used a variety of items to get similar results, from bottled water to modern art.”
Other studies show that generic drugs can be less effective merely because they cost less.
Baba Shiv, a neuroeconomist at Stanford, gave the testers an “energy drink” with sugar and caffein. Some participants paid the full price, and others were given a discount. Then, they were asked to solve word puzzles. The results were astonishing, those who drank the “cheaper” but identical energy drink consistently solved fewer puzzles. “We ran the study again and again, not sure if what we got had happened by chance. But every time we ran it we got the same.”
I think that this probably applies to cafeteria food as well–I’ll bet the same food at a fancy restaurant would taste a lot better.
But the importance of this study, for me, is its relation to Indie music, and to the Indie Culture in general. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but this experience was made vivid to me in a car ride back from Zion last weekend.
My friends Peter and Will made CDs with some of their favorite music. Yet, with many of the songs, I was unable to appreciate the music to the same degree as them. Additionally, when I played a CD I made with my favorite songs of all time, they didn’t receive anywhere near as much pleasure as I. For me, each of the songs had their own story. It mattered to me that Grizzly Bear and Feist did a collaboration. It was important and unique, and sure to sound amazing. But, my friends had no idea who Grizzly Bear or Feist was. To them, the music wasn’t very special.
This is why these experiments are so important. They explain why Indie kids have such weird taste in music. Its not that Indie music is “better,” or that the taste for Indie music is more cultured. There is no “required taste.” Rather, Indie kids have enormous expectations for their favorite artists.
Every time I find a new Bon Iver song, I flip out in joy because each song is so important to me. But, when I listen to Elliot Smith, I am unable to feel the same appreciation that many of my Indie superiors have.
I have always wondered why Indie kids spend so much time finding the most obscure bands imaginable. Even if they sound weird (Animal Collective, Passion Pit, The Avalanches…) we still love them. When pitchfork put Kid A as their #1, and The Avalanche’s at #8, I gave the albums the expectation of being a $90 bottle of wine. My brain made the music sound better than it would have if I heard the music in a different context.
This scientific principal shows why the Indie music scene is so strong. When at a school like Pomona, where most “cool” kids are hipsters, it is hard not to be peer pressured into liking Radiohead, Bon Iver, or Fleet Foxes. When you respect your friends judgments, and they like this music, you begin to gain an appreciation for it.
I am not arguing that Indie music isn’t good music regardless of the status-game it comes with, but rather, that Indie music is significantly improved by the status-game it comes with. All us Indie kids should feel blessed that there is such an elitist culture that we get to partake in, because it allows our brains to hear this music in a way that our parents never could.
The most important invention of the 21st century (in my opinion) has been Mojo.
It has granted us, the Indie kids, the ability to not only gain access to the music of all of our friends, but to create a new way to judge our friends. The ones with the “coolest” libraries are reinforced as Indie alpha-dogs. And while this isn’t good in and of itself, it is important because it serves as another way to make sure that we all constantly update our music, finding new amazing bands.
I love the Indie culture at Pomona. It makes me happy, and gives me something to do with my enormous amounts of spare time. But I also realize that it is silly. Just like with wine connoisseurs, the Indie culture has a negative connotation to most. Most Indie kids don’t even like being called Indie.
I’ve always felt certain that I would still listen to the same music, even if it wasn’t Indie. But after reading about these experiments, I am not so certain. The Indie culture rewards obscurity, so it might be even cooler to listen to Bon Iver if no one has ever heard of him.
The last thing I want to talk about is the new Twilight Soundtrack. Most of my Indie friends are very disappointed that such amazing bands (Grizzly Bear, Thom Yorke, Bon Iver, Saint Vincent, Death Cab for Cutie…) are going to be adored by 12 year old girls. My reaction was very different. The day when I first saw the pre-order form on iTunes was one of the greatest days of my life. I had the hope that everyone could feel what I feel when I listen to Bon Iver. I can’t imagine that 12 year old girls “appreciating” the soundtrack music will somehow change my appreciation for Thom Yorke. On the contrary, it has helped me branch out and find new artists like Saint Vincent, who I previously had never heard of. Who knows, maybe the movie will be amazing. But if I go into it thinking it will be an atrocity, it will be. I just wonder if I can keep an open mind towards it.