The Psychology of Food and Forgery

Another great article on on mind, magic, and con men’s marketing.


September 2, 2008

Op-Ed Contributor

Fish or Foul?


Chevy Chase, Md.

WHEN news of the great fish fraud broke recently, New York’s elite restaurateurs rushed to defend their sushi. Phony labels on the red snapper? Knock-off tuna? Not to worry. Top chefs can’t be fooled, they insisted, nor can their customers. “It is impossible to mislead people who have knowledge,” declared Eric Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin.

Few statements could do more to gladden a con man’s heart. In the art of the con, magicians and swindlers and forgers insist, the ideal victim is not an ignoramus but an expert. Any magician would rather take on a roomful of physicists than of 5-year-olds. “When you’re certain you cannot be fooled,” wrote the magician Teller, “you become easy to fool.”

Experts make the best victims because they jump to unwarranted conclusions. The savvier they are, the quicker they jump, because they see at a glance which way a story is heading. In 2002, for instance, a French wine researcher named Frédéric Brochet gave 54 experts an array of red wines to evaluate. Some of the glasses contained white wine that Mr. Brochet had doctored to look red, by adding a tasteless, odorless additive. Not a single taster noticed the switch.

“About 2 or 3 percent of people detect the white wine flavor,” Mr. Brochet said, “but invariably they have little experience of wine culture. Connoisseurs tend to fail to do so. The more training they have, the more mistakes they make because they are influenced by the color of the wine.”

For the experts, the term “red wine” carries countless associations. Each one points to further questions; each question leads them further off the trail. By contrast, the amateurs’ ignorance keeps them from exploring subtle byways. Seeing only one question — “what do you think of this wine?” — they can’t wander far.

The catch is that, when it comes to food, we all think of ourselves as experts. But we taste with both our tongues and our minds, and it’s easy to lead minds astray. Brownies taste better, for example, when served on china rather than on paper plates, research has shown. And we prefer wine with a pedigree, even if it’s a phony one. Sometimes all it takes is an alluring name. Until a few decades ago, Patagonian toothfish was a trash fish not worth trying to give away. Renamed Chilean sea bass, it sold so fast that it nearly disappeared from the sea.

Expectations are everything. In one recent test, psychologists asked 32 volunteers to sample strawberry yogurt. To make sure the testers made their judgments purely on the basis of taste, the researchers said, they needed to turn out the lights. Then they gave their subjects chocolate yogurt. Nineteen of the 32 praised the strawberry flavor. One said that strawberry was her favorite flavor and she planned to switch to this new brand.

The volunteers knew the taste of strawberries perfectly well. That was the problem. The associations that came with the word “strawberry” overwhelmed the taste of chocolate. Every trickster’s hope, says Jim Steinmeyer, who designs illusions for magicians, is “finding smart people who bring a lot to the table — cultural experience, shared expectations, preconceptions. The more they bring, the more there is to work with, and the easier it is to get the audience to make allowances — to reach the ‘right’ conclusion and unwittingly participate in the deception.”

In the case of the fish forgery, discovered by a pair of high school students armed with DNA tests, a nice presentation and a lofty price tag probably helped restaurants palm off tilapia as white tuna. That left diners poised for a fall. But in the end they weren’t pushed. They jumped. Maybe their own ignorance or carelessness did them in. More likely it was overconfidence.

It’s a culprit that’s claimed countless victims. In a classic study done in 1977, psychologists asked subjects an array of random questions. What is the capital of Ecuador? In the United States do more people die annually from suicide or homicide? After answering each question, volunteers were asked to rate how sure they were that their answer was correct.

Subjects hugely overestimated their own knowledge. Some not only gave wrong answers, but also put the odds that they were wrong at one in 10,000 or even one in a million. In areas where the respondents were more knowledgeable, they were more accurate but even more overconfident.

It’s natural to assume that these traps only snooker other people. Don’t count on it. The art curator and historian Theodore Rousseau, a connoisseur of forgery, pointed out that we never find out about the best scams. “We should all realize that we can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected,” Rousseau warned. “The good ones are still hanging on the walls.”

Or waiting at the sushi bar.

Edward Dolnick is the author, most recently, of “The Forger’s Spell.” His wife is a member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family and the board of The New York Times Company.

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