Steve Fenton

The Sip Test Fallacy

Why do people buy an expensive brand even though a much cheaper alternative beats the brand in a taste test?

One contributing reason is presentation. If something looks good, we are more likely to think it tastes good. This is a proven effect, but there is a more interesting process at work.

If you watch a lazy magazine show about food… for example, Eat Well For Less (BBC) – you’ll see a technique in use called a “sip test”. To perform a sip test, you fill a bunch of identical plastic cups with a small sample of different brands in order to “compare them fairly”. Except a sip test is never fair.

When you try a small sip of a drink you will almost certainly prefer the option with the most sugar. We have a bit of a knack for detecting sugar and salt in our food. So if you sip test a drink, you’re reaction is likely to be to choose the sweetest tasting option.

When you actually want to drink a whole cup of drink, however, you’ll find that the sweetest option becomes sickly after a couple of mouthfuls. A pint of sickly sweet drink actually turns out to be rather undesirable. Our reaction to a sip is not a good indicator of our reaction to a whole cup.

Despite this, the sip test is rolled out time after time, proving that a 20p version is supposedly better than an 80p version of some product. We fall for it each time… except the effect wears off fast – because ultimately there are more people buying that 80p version. We thought we wanted the cheap version… We thought we were after the quick sugar rush… but deep down we seem to understand there is value in a more expensive version.

Don’t be fooled by the sip test. That quick hit isn’t a good long-term choice. But we all know that deep down already.

The problem with quick and dirty… is that dirty remains long after quick has been forgotten – Steve McConnell

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