They might not know it’s dog food, but they know it doesn’t taste good

A recent study from the American Association of Wine Economists has been receiving online attention for its claim that people can’t tell the difference between paté and dog food. However, in the study, subjects still consistently identify the dog food as the worst tasting of the bunch. Then why don’t they go on to pick it as the dog food from the paté samples they taste? The problem is that asking subjects to identify the dog food is asking them to think too much about a question that doesn’t really require any deep thinking. If it tastes bad, it tastes bad, and thinking about it only allows you to convince yourself that it’s not that bad (or that your idea of dog food isn’t that bad). 

This tendency was best exemplified by a study performed by Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia. He asked college students to rank a series of different strawberry jams. The students’ rankings were accurate when they only had to consider which one they like best. However, when Wilson asked them to consider more specific aspects, such as each jam’s texture, their rankings no longer reflected their own (or experts’) jam preferences. Thinking about these other, irrelevant factors prevented them from making accurate calls about the jams. The point: if you know something tastes bad, it doesn’t really matter what it is or how consistent its texture and color. It still tastes bad, even though they might fool you into thinking otherwise.

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