Preferring More Expensive Stuff. Is It Really Better, or Do We Want It Because It’s More Expensive?

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“‘The more expensive the better’ is kind of the American way, and if you spent $600 for a sweatshirt, then that makes it better.”

– Macklemore

When you think about what to buy, you probably believe you’re deciding based on your personal taste as well practical considerations. But it turns out that preferring more expensive stuff often has less to do with an item’s quality than you might think.

Now, I’m not going to try to argue that price is always unrelated to quality. Two-Buck Chuck really isn’t that great. But, price impacts our perceptions more than we think.

We like what experts like — and what is expensive describes recent studies conducted by University of Vienna and University of Copenhagen researchers about personal taste in art.

In one study, students evaluated a series of paintings according to personal pleasure. The control group evaluated the paintings without any social context information.

Before presenting the paintings to the other study participants, researchers told the students that certain social groups had already seen the works. These groups were peers (fellow university students), experts (museum curators at respected museums), and similarly aged university dropouts who were unemployed.

The study showed that when participants thought that experts or their peers liked a painting, they liked it more. But students who thought the unemployed dropouts didn’t like a painting, actually liked it more.

In a second study, the researchers found that if they told students that a painting had sold for a very low price, they liked it less. If they told students the painting had sold for a very high price, they liked it more.

This doesn’t just apply to art. Researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the California Institute of Technology told study participants that they were tasting two different wines, one that costs $5 and one that costs $45.

In fact, it was the same wine. Despite that, the part of the brain that experiences pleasure became more active when the drinker thought he or she was tasting the more expensive wine.

Cornell University researchers offered customers the same Italian buffet at either $4 or $8 and asked them to assess their dining experience. Customers who paid $8 enjoyed their food 11% more than the customers who paid $4.

Another study found that an “expensive” salt solution was more effective at managing the symptoms of patients with Parkinson’s disease than an “inexpensive” one. The salt solutions were identical placebos.

Have you ever caught yourself preferring more expensive items for no reason you can articulate? Did you later regret your purchase or was the extra expense worth it?