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The behavioral economics of taste

The basic insight here holds for a lot of things in life:

If I'd had it at an otherwise unremarkable restaurant, I would have thought it was terrible. Why didn't they at least sprinkle on some black pepper? But if I had been served it at a great restaurant, I would have marveled at their audacity.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 11, 2009; 8:27 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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While you're providing pithy quotes, here's a nice one I ran across, from the 19th century smart guy, Charles Babbage, having to do with the calculating machines he busily invented and built.

On two occasions I have been asked, - "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

Posted by: bdballard | December 11, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

I remember that Mario Batalli once said, while squeezing some lemon juice into something, "that's one thing the French don't understand... acid!" I took him to mean unbalanced acid. And it's true. Unbalanced flavors can have great attraction.

On your perceptual point, I've sometimes thought that's the trick to Broadway. Tourists come to see a cheesy musical on Broadway, and frankly they've come so far and paid so much, they just can't psychologically afford to not like it. So they tell all their friends back home what a great time they had, and the scam lives on.

Posted by: wagster | December 11, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

I've made a similar point in this regard about wines my partner and I have tried. That you almost feel obligated to praise a $49 bottle, as opposed to a $15 bottle, when both of us agree that pretty much any Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara/Santa Maria tastes better to us than the presumed French wines various wine snobs would have us drink and rave about.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | December 11, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Tbh that soup sounds ghastly. I think chicken fat floating in a soup is gross. In fact, I was just saying this morning I have pretty much had it with chicken.

I don't care what kind of restaurant that soup came out of I would send it back.

Posted by: luko | December 11, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

And thus the true challenge of developing "taste" judgments is to transcend the atmospherics of the unremarkable and brutally analyze the aura of the elite so that one comes--phenomenologically, so to speak--to live in the object or substance itself and experience it on its own terms.

The most remarkable dish I tasted in the last dozen years or so was an oxtail stew served up at an unfancy neighborhood wine bar. It was simply superb in both technique and complexity of flavor. I rarely think anything is transcendant, but it was. Next time I returned, both the chef and the menu had been axed: the clientele really just wanted some pizzas and cheese plates. I think the challenge of trying to create something really excellent within a nonelitist setting has been taken up by companies like Target or CB2: e.g., Marcel Wanders creating holiday pieces for the former; the perfect $2.50 white appetizer plate at the latter (it would have been $40 at Luminaire.) It doesn't always work, but it should be possible.

And this attempt to divorce judgment from setting should apply to people, too. I spent half a day with a moving guy packing up my house who was more interesting and vital than, say, either of my Senators.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | December 11, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

I know "behavioral economics" is kind of the term of art for the wonk set, and I'm happy to accept it when applied to certain decision making phenomena, but it's basically a vacuous term. Behavioral economics just refers to behavior or, as a cognitive psychologist like me would say, psychology. The only reason "economics" comes into play is because economists like Richard Thaler need to convince other economists that they're all wrong, and saying "We should all be doing psychology" just won't go over well. People think psychology is flaky, and they're mostly right. But considering that the term "behavioral economics" tacitly accepts the premise that traditional economics is wrong in an overwhelming variety of circumstances, I'm not sure why it has more cachet than psychology.

End of nitpicky semantic rant.

Posted by: j-ray | December 11, 2009 9:33 PM | Report abuse

Aaron Kagan on soups, wagster on Broadway shows, zeppelin003 on wine, even JJenkins2 on decorations and china: Aren't they all just telling the Emperor's New Clothes again? On the other hand, a great deal of the world economy is based on people paying more than the strictly-utilitarian value for goods.

Posted by: KenInIL | December 12, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

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