What Bourdieu and Bordeaux Tell Us About Fancy Chocolate

The image of a high-class restaurant isn’t limited to foie gras and fancy wine. An extravagant establishment appeals to all senses, employing everything from mood lighting to expensive silverware to valet parking in order to assure its customers that they are receiving a top-of-the-line experience. While cocoa has not quite eclipsed caviar as an iconic luxury food, a booming craft chocolate industry has created a disparity not unlike the split between five-star restaurants and fast food chains. What distinguishes chocolate manufacturers from steakhouses is the sensory control over the product: two chocolate bars may differ in price by a factor of ten, but a bar is ultimately a bar. There is no mood lighting, no expensive

As a result of its lack of sensory control, the craft chocolate industry is fit to thrive off of the power of suggestion. Given the wealth of research that points to non-food factors determining taste ratings, combined with literature that shows the importance of price, luxury chocolate is more likely to be rated higher because it is luxury

The most compelling evidence supporting the power of suggestion in chocolate consumption is a body of literature which shows all the factors that affect an eating experience. On multiple occasions and in various ways, studies have concluded that there’s more to taste than simply taste. A team of international researchers found in 2014 that “the colour of a container influences people’s ratings of the taste/flavour of a warm beverage” (Van Doorn 5). In 2007, a study concluded that assessments of a meal were largely affected by the context of that meal—participants in a laboratory rated their food much differently than those in a chain restaurant (King

One of the most crucial determinants of taste is expectation. If, say, a barbeque restaurant advertises that it puts pineapple in its signature sauce, its patrons will be looking for the pineapple taste when they try a pulled pork sandwich. That presumption of a certain flavor can often lead to increased perception of the flavor in food. A team of behavioral economists led by Leonard Lee at Columbia Business School found that study participants who were told that a sample of beer contained vinegar were more likely to perceive—and be turned off by—the sour taste than those who drank the same sample without prior information (1). For moviegoers, too, expectations play a critical role. A study by Kristen Klaaren and others found that subjects assigned higher ratings to films when they were made to expect high-quality movies (3). In food, as in film, high expectations can serve as self-fulfilling

In few arenas is the research on affective expectations as thorough—or as comical—as in the luxury beverage market. Brian DiMarco, a wine selector, told Freakonomics Radio in 2010 about an experiment he conducted: “We did a tasting, brown bag. And we had the exact same wine in both bags. And we told them that one bottle was a $50 bottle to write their reviews, and we told them the other was a $10 bottle, to write the reviews. Of course they were both $20 bottles according to what they would sell at any retail store. And then we reversed it and said now the $10 bottle is really the $50. And everyone liked the $50 bottle better in both circumstances, because they perceived that the price there was either something they were missing, when really these wines are so similar.” A paper by Robin Goldstein agrees with DiMarco’s experiment, noting that “in a large sample of blind tastings… individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less” (13). The implication is that expensive wines are not expensive because they are so highly regarded. Instead, such wines are so highly regarded because they’re expensive. The same can be said of vodka; a New York Post taste test revealed that nearly half of subjects preferred an $8 per bottle vodka from Syracuse to a $35 per bottle counterpart from

One of the most notable instances of luxurious expectations affecting perceptions took place on the television show Jimmy Kimmel Live. A correspondent for the show lampooned participants by having them evaluate two coffees which, despite being identical, were said to be of disparate prices.

 

The victims of Kimmel’s ruse use words like “richness”, “boldness”, and “smoothness”, all of which are associated with fine coffee. Some ramble vaguely, trailing off sentences as if to imply that one of the coffees simply must be better.

The preferences shown by Kimmel’s subjects may be irrational, but they are natural from a psychological perspective. They can be explained by the power of suggestion, a concept that accounts for phenomena from the placebo effect to false memory. If a person is prompted to wonder whether he’s hungry, he might just conclude that, now that you mention it, he has a bit of an appetite. An online article by the Association for Psychological Science explains that humans have “response expectancies,” and that “These expectancies set us up for automatic responses that actively influence how we get to the outcome we expect. Once we anticipate a specific outcome will occur, our subsequent thoughts and behaviors will actually help to bring that outcome to fruition.” This means that the thought of an itchy arm can lead someone to think her arm is, in fact, itchy. In criminal justice, the article notes, “the rate of false identifications is significantly higher when lineups are conducted by people who know who the suspect is than when the lineups are conducted by people who don’t.” The cliché holds that hindsight is 20/20, and the same logic applies when information is given before an action. If one bar of chocolate is more expensive than another, then of course it’s because of its richness and texture. Suggestion can overpower experience, which is why subjects like Kimmel’s and DiMarco’s so easily draw distinctions that don’t

Psychology tells us why tastes are likely to conform to expectations, but the question remains as to why a consumer should prefer a more expensive product. It’s a glaring irrationality, after all, to favor a good that costs more when an alternative of equal quality could save money. The answer lies in the idea that taste can constitute cultural capital. French sociologist Pierre Bordieu explains that it can be socially beneficial for a person to enjoy caviar over, say, cheeseburgers. That the consumption may not be as enjoyable or as inexpensive is a small price to pay for the status earned by eating elite foods. As scholars Douglas Allen and Paul Anderson explain, “ for Bourdieu, taste becomes a ‘social weapon’ that defines and marks off the high from the low, the sacred from the profane, and the ‘legitimate’ from the ‘illegitimate’ in matters ranging from food and drink, cosmetics, and newspapers; on the one hand, to art, music, and literature on the other” (70).  In this framework, then, it makes perfect sense to prefer more expensive wine, coffee, or chocolate: such a preference can establish status and dominance over those who settle for mere

Even if the social sciences explain why price tags alter perception of some goods, it’s worth asking why chocolate qualifies as one of those susceptible items. The answer is that chocolate bears striking similarities to the goods that are vulnerable to the power of suggestion. The studies point to luxury ingestibles—wine, vodka, and coffee—as being influenced by expectation, and this makes intuitive sense. If a product is being swallowed, it’s in the consumer’s best interest—social and otherwise—to believe that the product is of high quality. When a good is entering a consumer’s body, the relationship with the user becomes particularly intimate and superiority of product is that much more important.

The effect isn’t limited to food, however. A Dutch study found that subjects rated a television’s resolution more highly when they were (incorrectly) told that it was high-definition (Atlantic). What makes goods like technology and clothes amenable to the power of suggestion is the social component of their consumption. If someone is wearing a shirt in public, or if they are inviting friends over to watch television, luxury goods can serve as a Bourdieuian “social weapon”—it pays to be seen using these products. Chocolate, while perhaps not as social as wine, still bears a group dynamic in its consumption. From the olden ritual of the Chokola’j to modern dessert after dinner, chocolate is a good often consumed in a social setting.

The final characteristic of chocolate that might make its high-end consumption given to expectation effects is the most obvious: its luxury industry is enormous.  A report by KPMG describes consumers who call chocolate “my daily luxury,” a characterization that “is fueling demand for luxury chocolate” (7). High-end chocolate continues to pop up all over the market. A To’ak bar, made by an Ecuadorian producer, goes for $260 per 1.5 ounces, enough to buy hundreds of Hershey’s bars (Fox News). This disparity would seem to open chocolate to the power of luxury that so impacts similar goods.

To examine, in a limited way, whether the power of suggestion can sway consumers toward more expensive chocolates, I set up a taste test mirroring Kimmel’s in an on-campus dining hall. After telling participants that they were to taste two chocolates of disparate prices, I gave samples labeled A and B. Unbeknownst to the subjects, both samples were from Dove bars, a mass-produced chocolate brand. Despite this fact, the tasters were quick to draw distinctions. Again and again, the richness, smoothness, and overall eating experience were rated differently depending on the sample. One participant claimed that “Chocolate B had less flavor”, while another, who identified as a “refined taster,” went as far as to state that “I would pay for A, but maybe not B.” The study was neither large enough nor scientifically rigorous enough to draw conclusions, but the early indication is clear: as with wine and television, the idea of pricy chocolate leads consumers to taste differences that just aren’t so.

This is not to suggest that there are no differences between luxury chocolate and bulk chocolate. On the contrary, craft chocolatiers around the world are bringing high-quality bars to market by using purer beans and more delicate production processes. Instead, the implication here is that chocolate, as a luxury good, can fall prey to the power of suggestion. The improved ingredients and extra care that go into high-end chocolate lead to a better eating experience for consumers, but differences in price also have the potential to contribute to differences in perception. As approval goes, it seems that chocolate is a Giffen good.

Works Cited

Allen, Douglas E., and Paul F. Anderson. “Consumption and social stratification: Bourdieu’s distinction.” Advances in Consumer Research 21.1 (1994): 70-74.

Fagen, Cynthia R. “Post Taste Test Reveals Drinkers Can’t Tell Good from Cheap Vodka.” NYPost.com. The New York Post, 26 May 2013. Web. 06 May 2015.

Food Stores: A Taste of the Future. N.p.: KPMG, 2014. KPMG, June 2014. Web.

“Freakonomics Radio: Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better. 16 Dec. 2010. Freakonomics RSS. Web. 06 May 2015. Transcript.

Goldstein, Robin, et al. “Do more expensive wines taste better? Evidence from a large sample of blind tastings.” Journal of Wine Economics 3.01 (2008): 1-9.

King, Silvia C., et al. “The effects of contextual variables on food acceptability: A confirmatory study.” Food Quality and Preference 18.1 (2007): 58-65.

Lee, Leonard, Shane Frederick, and Dan Ariely. “Try It, You’ll Like It The Influence of Expectation, Consumption, and Revelation on Preferences for Beer.” Psychological Science 17.12 (2006): 1054-1058.

McRaney, David. “‘You Are Not So Smart’: Why We Can’t Tell Good Wine From Bad.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 28 Oct. 2011. Web. 06 May 2015.

“New $7 Cup of Coffee at Starbucks.” Jimmy Kimmel Live. Los Angeles, California, n.d.YouTube. Web. 06 May 2015.

“The Power of Suggestion: What We Expect Influences Our Behavior, for Better or Worse.” Association for Psychological Science RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.

“This Is What the World’s Most Expensive Chocolate Tastes like.” FoxNews.com. Fox News, 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 6 May 2015.

Van Doorn, George H., Dianne Wuillemin, and Charles Spence. “Does the colour of the mug influence the taste of the coffee?.” Flavour 3.1 (2014): 10.

 

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