Strange but True: Serve your wine with a little lie to guests


Q: Next time you offer a glass of cheap wine to guests, what might you tell them to enhance their sipping pleasure?

A: If you're OK with lying to make others happier, tell them it's a really expensive wine. First, typical casual wine drinkers can hardly tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines. Indeed, in thousands of double-blind taste tests involving hundreds of Americans and hundreds of different wines ranging from $1.65 to $150 per bottle, the assigned rankings (bad, OK, good, great) showed the subjects typically had a slight preference for the cheap stuff, report Robin Goldstein et al. in the "Journal of Wine Economics."

Second, we expect expensive wines to taste better. As reported by Harvard professor Joseph Henrich in his book "The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter," the pleasure someone gets from a glass of wine is influenced by how expensive they think it is. In tasting tests, brain scan (fMRI) studies have confirmed this bias: When two identical wines were labeled "cheap" or "expensive," those drinking the "expensive" sample usually had higher activity in their brain's pleasure centers.

Concludes Henrich, "In terms of rational gift-giving strategies, this suggests that when giving wine as gifts to Americans without wine training, you should buy cheap wine, remove any price indications, and tell them it's really expensive wine. This will maximize their pleasure and yours — by saving money..."

Q: What's out there to put people under acoustical attack in large numbers of kitchens?

A: The buzzing, cracking, popping, whirring, high-pitched ringing of the refrigerator provides the "din for dinner" these days, says Amber Williams in "Scientific American" magazine. According to a study by Korean engineers, an estimated 50 percent of owners are decidedly annoyed by this racket. "One particularly irksome noise is unique to no-frost fridges: a popping sound that bursts into the room in spats when the home appliance's compressor revs up."

Using vibration sensors and microphones, a team of mechanical engineers from Turkey observed that the popping or "cracking" noises were most frequent — and loudest — when the heater was running during the fridge's defrost stage. Rapid temperature changes cause contraction and expansion of adjoining metallic and other materials in the heating panel, creating the so-called "stick slip" phenomenon, where static friction causes parts to alternately stick together, then slip by one another, vibrating and radiating sound ("Applied Acoustics").

As acoustic consultant David Bowen put it, "It's a that-really-bothers-me type of noise."

Q: Why is that little girl holding her breath while she gets an injection?

A: Because she instinctively senses that doing this will lessen the pain. Spanish researchers Gustavo Reyes del Paso and colleagues conducted the definitive experiment: 38 intrepid subjects had their fingernails squashed while they were either inhaling a deep breath or holding their breath, reports Jessica Hamzelou in "New Scientist" magazine. As it turned out, they felt less pain during breath-holding than during inhalation ("Pain Medicine").

Perhaps because breath-holding is known to elevate blood pressure, and because elevated blood pressure is also associated with stress, we have evolved to naturally dampen pain under these conditions. (Indeed, people with high blood pressure tend to have higher pain thresholds.)

Some caveats: The effect was small — about half a point on a 10-point scale. And it may only work if the breath-holding starts before the pain kicks in, for example, anticipating an injection. Says Richard Chapman of the University of Utah, "It may be possible to coach people in acute pain — such as during childbirth — to control their pain by breath-holding. But holding your breath can also tense your muscles, which might make some painful conditions worse."

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