Monday, December 12, 2011

The Importance of Context - Violinists in the Metro, and Tea Prices

One of my friends recently brought an interesting phenomenon to my attention. Back in 2007, a journalist for the Washington Post orchestrated an interesting social experiment in which the famous violinist Joshua Bell played a piece by J.S. Bach in a Washington D.C. Metro Station during rush hour.

There's a brief page on NPR and a radio program about it: A Concert Violinist on the Metro?. If you want to watch just the video, you can see it here:

This whole experiment is fascinating to me because of the huge disparity in how people receive and respond to this violinist in different contexts. People pay steep prices to buy a ticket to see this award-winning musician play, and concert halls fill up when he performs. Yet the same musician, playing the same music, is completely ignored by a vast majority of people.

How is this relevant to tea?

I think that this social experiment is actually directly relevant to the world of tea, in two ways, both in terms of the enjoyment of tea, and the choices people make when buying tea. The case of the famous concert violinist going mostly ignored in the subway reminds me a lot of how people are shelling out tons of money on expensive tea sold in high-end shopping malls, while missing bargain-buys such as the ones highlighted in my recent post on cheap tea. Why? Context.

Context in Buying and Enjoying Tea:

It is a well-known and well-studied phenomenon that people will (often baselessly) attribute higher quality to a product, including food and drink like tea and wine, if the product is more expensive. That's right, if the tea has a higher price tag, you will think it is more expensive. There are several factors going on here.

A psychology book, Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini, sheds some light on this phenomenon, citing multiple factors:

  • Committment & Consistency - People are more likely to think that something is better if they gave up more to obtain it. In tea terms, people are more likely to think that a tea is higher quality if they spent more money on it, or went through greater lengths to obtain it (such as putting energy into searching for a bargain or researching online, or obtaining it from a little-known shop in an inconvenient location).

  • Social Proof - Because prices often reflect market demand, people often assume that a more expensive tea is expensive because it is in high demand, and therefore, other people like it so it must be better.

  • Scarcity - People are more likely to think a tea is better if it is scarce or difficult to obtain, such as if it is frequently out-of-stock, or only sold in limited batches. This is one reason why tea companies include weasel words like rare in their tea descriptions.

Beware of manipulation by marketing:

While there is some truth in all of these factors, unfortunately, all of these factors can be gamed or manipulated by unscrupulous tea companies looking to sell low-quality tea for a higher price. For example, people often assume that a higher price is related to scarcity or demand, but companies are free to set their own prices, so the price tag alone says nothing. And companies can also make teas seem artificially scarce by only ordering a small quantity and then having it go out of stock quickly.

For this reason I think it's good to be cautious. Some teas are genuinely rare or scarce, and some teas are more expensive because greater care has been put into their production. A few tips I would offer are to carry out blind taste tests (which can sometimes produce surprising results), and, when receiving teas as samples, to sample the tea and form your impression of it before looking at the tea's price. And, when buying tea online, shop around to see what the typical prices are for similar teas (or, in some cases, the same exact tea).

What do you think?

What do you think of the video / experiment with the violinist in the metro station? What about context as it applies to buying tea or enjoying tea? Do you have any additional tips for how to protect yourself against manipulation by marketing? How do you determine which teas really have the quality to justify their price?

1 comment:

  1. Your cheap tea post caused me to reconsider a pound bag of Ahmad Tea's Barooti Assam, purchased for $5, that had been sitting at the back of my cupboard while I brewed pricier Assams instead. I had assumed that after sampling better teas, I would now find the Barooti lacking, but I was wrong. Although it's more astringent and not as smooth compared to my other Assams, it's still fantastic and has become a morning ritual. I have to admit I may have written off this tea largely because it was too cheap.

    But it also goes the other way, at least for me. My typical Assam costs me $1.50 to $2.25 an ounce, and when I bought Plymouth Tea's Meleng Assam for about $3.25/oz. in a recent purchase, although not a dramatic difference, it seemed like a splurge at the time. I was disappointed in it until I realized it was a very good tea; I just expected miracles because I had paid a little more. The higher price made me judge it more harshly - "sure, it's good, but is it THAT good?"

    Both situations are similar, in that I was biased towards the price range I usually pay. Thinking the Ahmad tea didn't cut it helped me justify buying mid-range Assams. And so did rating a pricier option as unimpressive.

    I'm really interested in that Influence book, in any case, even if it doesn't always predict my own behavior.