The Influence of Expensive Wine

Perception is reality. . . or it at least helps create reality.

We have known for some time that wine drinkers reported on surveys that more expensive wine tasted better.  The problem with these surveys, of course, is that we never really knew if it was the status of drinking expensive wine that led people to report the enhanced taste — “I’m drinking expensive wine, so it must taste good” response.

Well, not too long ago, we learned there is more to it than that.  Specifically, some researchers at Stanford and the California Institute of Technology (this was a study involving wine!), put study subjects head-first in an MRI machine and – get this – put a tube of wine into their mouths.  Every person got the same wine, but some were told they were drinking from $45 bottles of wine and some were told they were drinking from $5 bottles.  What happened is amazing.

The part of the brain that experiences pleasure went into overdrive for the people who were told they were drinking $45 wine.  Not so much for the $5 wine drinkers.  Price, it seems, impacts our physiological response and experience.  We don’t just say expensive wine tastes better, we experience it as tasting better!

So, here’s the take away for development professionals:  We set expectations for major donors and prospects before and while they are being engaged by our institutions.  And the manner in which we set those expectations (i.e., a $45 bottle of wine expectation or $5 expectation), will go a long way into shaping how they will report their experience – and, most likely, how they will respond through charitable giving.

For example, how we go about asking a major donor to join an advisory council helps to shape how that person subsequently will view her service on that council.   Having your assistant call to set up the meeting to ask her to join the council sends a very different message than calling yourself.  Asking her to join the council when you happen to see her at a social event around town sends a very different message than asking her to come to your institution for a catered lunch with the president, etc.

Neuro-science is affirming my view on our work.  Our job as development professionals is to design environments that encourage generosity.  Or put another way, our job is to ensure that people experience the pleasures of drinking $45 bottles of wine!

When we set the right contexts and give people the cues that our institutions do important work, they are valued, and their involvement matters, their own brains will encourage them to respond positively.


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