Why The Words You Use Affect How You Experience The World
In the early noughties British sitcom Black Books, there’s an episode in which curmudgeonly bookstore proprietor, Bernard Black, and his employee Manny are house sitting for a friend. They take rather too much advantage of their host’s impressive wine cellar and after several eye-wateringly expensive bottles of grape juice have been poured down their gullets, the following slurred exchange occurs:
Bernard: Old wine is good wine.
Manny: Yes. But expensive wine is good wine also.
Bernard: Yes. But the older the wine is, the gooder it is.
Manny: Ah. But by the same token, the more expensive the wine, then the gooder it is, also.
As it happens, Bernard and Manny’s well-oiled analysis of what makes good wine isn’t far off the truth. Old, expensive wine is indeed good wine, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. Humans are, it turns out, very suggestible creatures. The more we pay for wine, the nicer the bottle it comes in, and the more elevated the vocabulary we use around it, the more likely we are to enjoy it. And this has very little to do with the actual contents of the bottle.
As Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics, and bestselling author of Predictably Irrational and Dollars and Sense explained on a recent episode of Simplify, so much of our enjoyment of anything is tied up with our “consumption vocabulary.”
“Consumption vocabulary is both true and fake at the same time. It’s like a placebo. So think about wine. We took this category of thing called wine and we gave it “consumption vocabulary.” There’s the leg of the wine. There’s tannins and acidity and complexity. We convince people that they need special cups to sip the wine from.”
Okay, fine. But what does that mean? Well, the protocol, language, and ceremony we use around wine has a huge impact on how much we enjoy it. For example, if you buy a bottle of screw-top corner shop plonk, you’re expecting it to serve a purpose but not to really enjoy the ceremony of the wine itself. We would feel silly savoring its flavors and colors.
However, if we buy and drink suitably expensive wine, we feel such things are not only not silly, but essential. To prove this, Ariely and his colleagues ran some experiments by asking aspiring sommeliers to blind-test four wines and to write their descriptions, e.g. fruitiness, oakiness etc., on individual cards.
“[Then] we mixed the wines and we said ‘now, please drink and match the wine to each of the cards’. And people couldn’t. They wrote: ‘this is fruity and reminds me of summer and grass and it has a hint of blueberry’, and then they couldn’t they couldn’t figure out which wine actually fit their description.”
So, does that mean that all wine tasting and grading is bunkum? No. But it does mean that we place a lot of importance on the ceremony and vocabulary that we attribute to wine.
Why is this? Simply, because it makes us pay attention. According to Ariely, you can eat the best meal you’ve ever tasted but if you inhale it at your desk during the day while concentrating on catching up on that important project, you’re not going to truly enjoy it. But add the right atmosphere and the vocabulary of appreciation, and it becomes a different experience. So, in terms of wine:
“If you slow down and you have words like tannin, complexity, acidity, and you look at the wine at the light, and you swirl it around, and you sip it, and you pay attention, and you slow down, all of a sudden the experience is much more valuable. […] Consumption vocabulary is both fake and real. It doesn’t necessarily change the way that senses in your tongue meet the wine, but it does change the way you process it, think about it, the value you get from it, and so on.”
And Ariely’s study isn’t the only one that backs up this hypothesis. A blind taste test conducted by psychologist Richard Wiseman at Hertfordshire University asked 578 people to comment on the quality of wines ranging from a £3.49 bottle of claret to a £29.99 bottle of champagne. The study concluded that people had a 50:50 chance of identifying an expensive or cheap wine — the same odds as flipping a coin.
In 2007, a study at California Institute of Technology in tandem with the Stanford Graduate School of Business tested how much people really enjoyed wine using MRI machines. If the study subjects believed a wine to be more expensive, the MRI showed that their brains experienced a higher level of enjoyment.
There are a host of studies on wine and appreciation and in light of this knowledge, it’s no wonder that the current mindfulness movement has taken hold in such a profound way. If, by using our words and our attention and our expectations we can enjoy life lived in the moment more, then maybe it’s worth indulging in “consumption vocabulary” around not just wine, but life in general.
If we can take the time to pause, enjoy each moment, and to develop a vocabulary of not only consumption, but appreciation, then life may end up being all the richer.