Baba Shiv, a neuroeconomist at Stanford, supplied a group of people with Sobe Adrenaline Rush, an “energy” drink that was supposed to make them feel more alert and energetic. (The drink contained a potent brew of sugar and caffeine which, the bottle promised, would impart “superior functionality”). Some participants paid full price for the drinks, while others were offered a discount. The participants were then asked to solve a series of word puzzles. Shiv found that people who paid discounted prices consistently solved about thirty percent fewer puzzles than the people who paid full price for the drinks. The subjects were convinced that the stuff on sale was much less potent, even though all the drinks were identical.

The same article — which doesn’t intend to say anything about music — goes on to a familiar kind of observation about wine-connoisseurship:

It’s pretty clear that we expect more expensive wines to taste better. (This expectation is visible in an fMRI machine.) But it’s also clear that, at least for amateurs, this expectation is mostly false: when you give people bottles of wine without any price information, there is no correlation between the cost of the wine and its subjective ratings. A $8 bottle is just as enjoyable as an $80 one.

One thing I wonder, though: is it all about what I personally am paying, or is it more about theoretical value? If I’m given a free ticket to a gala, do I nevertheless enjoy it more for knowing that other people are paying a thousand bucks? Did the people who got the energy-drink discount know that they were getting a special deal? This seems to me a crucial factor.

Another wrinkle: money may not be the only marker of exclusivity that operates in the enjoyment of music. The late Sir George Guest told me that, when he took over the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, even their developing excellence didn’t bring an audience for anything they did. Everybody went to KIng’s College down the street and ignored St. John’s. He then had a shrewd idea. He advertised their Advent Carol Service as involving “Admission by Ticket Only, to be Obtained Gratis at the Porter’s Lodge.” The college was not only besieged by the hordes wanting to get in, but the event provided a popular annual broadcast for the BBC. There were many other factors that made the choir deservedly world-famous, but Sir George was convinced that the initial leg-up for them came from that innocent ploy.

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