Choosing wine: a people-thing or a thing-thing?

Pic c/o

Interesting post over at the Guardian about some research suggesting wine experts are not the best folk to turn to to help you choose wine.

Couple of things here:

1. It's not that surprising, given the difficulties in choosing from large and often indistinguishable wine options that regular people often follow the recommendations of those they see as experts – outsourcing the cognitive load, we call it, to those we imagine know better. In other words, that choosing wine is often a people-thing rather than a thing-thing. We equally use heuristics like a. what I recognise b. what I see other people drinking (I'll have what she's having), what's culturally appropriate (red wine with meat) or we might use price as an indicator (with all of the framing effects that Behavioural Economists love to talk about).

2. Nor is it surprising that the experts too find it difficult to choose, too. Or that they also defer to experts and expertise that they discern from others. The notion of expertise in any field tends to be much more culturally than empirically-based – i.e. it's a people not a thing-thing. There are lots of examples of how bad expertise advice can be; don't forget, Tversky & Kahnemann's early work on human inability to calculate probabliities was based on work comparing patients and medical professionals (and the latter proved just as prone to the cognitive biases described as those who looked to them for advice).

What strikes me is how odd it seems to us that experts don't know and can't tell products apart. And how disappointed or wronged we feel at the news that they don't know. We make sense of our use of copying experts in terms of some supposed expertise about the thingness of our choices and this seems to be undermined by experts' failure to deliver. (Tom Ewing's musings on how the role of chance in popular music are always worth a listen…

Tomewing tweet copy

All of which serves to remind us that many more things than our default assumption that choosing is primarily done as a thing-thing is wrong; far better to assume it's a people-thing.