I think I like macadamias because of their light, creamy, nutty taste. A biologist might speculate that I like them because I recognize their nutritional value. And a behavioral economist would call me a snob. (More)

“Decadent” macadamias

I’m not a snob. Okay, sure, I don’t like to fly in the baggage compartment because there are no flight attendants and no peanuts. I also don’t like airline coffee, and having to share a seat with someone’s smelly shoes totally ruins the in-flight movie. But that doesn’t make me a snob, does it?

I’ve been told that macadamias are decadent, maybe because humans use “decadent” to describe lots of recipes that include macadamias. Or maybe it’s because they’re the most expensive nut in the world. But I’m sure I’m not a snob. I can taste the difference between macadamias and other nuts. I’m absolutely positive.

“Crushed red fruit” or food coloring?

Then again, people who like expensive wines insist they can taste the difference. But it turns out they’re wrong:

Blind tastings and academic studies robustly show that neither amateur consumers nor expert judges can consistently differentiate between fine wines and cheap wines, nor identify the flavors within them.

And it’s not just fine wines vs. cheap wines:

The perceptual ambiguity of wine helps explain why contextual influences – say, the look of a label, or the price tag on the bottle – can profoundly influence expert judgment. This was nicely demonstrated in a mischievous 2001 experiment led by Frédéric Brochet at the University of Bordeaux. In one test, Brochet included fifty-four wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert said that it was “jammy,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.”

So wine experts can’t even tell the difference between red wine and white wine … but they’ll insist they can, and describe a ‘red’ wine with ‘red’ wine words, even if it’s just white wine with red food coloring.

Listening with our eyes

Indeed it’s not even just wine. It turns out people often don’t know why they like one thing more than another. Take classical pianists, for example:

Chia-Jung Tsay was an extremely talented young pianist. She performed at Carnegie Hall at age 16, attended prestigious conservatories, and competed in music competitions. But her success seemed inconsistent. During auditions, she noticed that she did better when she performed live or provided a video than when she submitted an audio recording.

Tsay could have harbored dark suspicions about the judges for the rest of her life. But today she is also a talented psychologist and an Assistant Professor in Management Science and Innovation at University College London, so she set up an experiment to examine the role of visual cues in judging musical performances.

Tsay took the actual audition recordings of the top 3 finalists from 10 prestigious international classical music competitions and asked a group of participants to select the winners. One group watched a video audition, the second group listened to an audio recording of the same audition, and a final group watched the video audition with the sound turned off.

As her study participants were untrained in classical music, Tsay expected them to do no better at choosing a winner than random chance. This proved true for the first two groups, who chose the winner less than 33% of the time. But to everyone’s surprise, the amateurs did significantly better than chance when watching only a silent video.

Okay, sure, but those were amateurs with no classical music training. What about the real experts, the people who judge these competitions? Well….

Tsay then replicated the experiment with professional musicians and found the same results. Despite their expertise, the musicians also did no better than chance at picking the winner based on audio or video recordings. But when they watched a silent video recording, they too performed dramatically better.

Expert judges and amateurs alike claim to judge classical musicians based on sound. But Tsay’s research suggests that the original judges, despite their experience and expertise, judged the competition (which they heard and watched live) based on visual information just as amateurs do.
In follow up experiments, Chia-Jung Tsay found that those judging musicians’ auditions based on visual cues were not giving preference to attractive performers. Rather, they seemed to look for visual signs of relevant characteristics like passion, creativity, and uniqueness. Seeing signs of passion is valuable information. But in differentiating between elite performers, it gives an edge to someone who looks passionate over someone whose play is passionate.

Experts and limits

But I’m a squirrel. That should make me an expert on nuts, right? Well, Daniel Kahnemann, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow, says expertise has its limits:

SPIEGEL: Experts, for example, have gathered a lot of experience in their respective fields and, for this reason, are convinced that they have very good intuition about their particular field. Shouldn’t we be able to rely on that?

Kahneman: It depends on the field. In the stock market, for example, the predictions of experts are practically worthless. Anyone who wants to invest money is better off choosing index funds, which simply follow a certain stock index without any intervention of gifted stock pickers. Year after year, they perform better than 80 percent of the investment funds managed by highly paid specialists. Nevertheless, intuitively, we want to invest our money with somebody who appears to understand, even though the statistical evidence is plain that they are very unlikely to do so. Of course, there are fields in which expertise exists. This depends on two things: whether the domain is inherently predictable, and whether the expert has had sufficient experience to learn the regularities. The world of stock is inherently unpredictable.
SPIEGEL: How did Wall Street respond to your book?

Kahneman: Oh, some people were really mad; others were quite interested and positive. It was on Wall Street, I heard, that somebody gave a thousand copies of my book to investors. But, of course, many professionals still don’t believe me. Or, to be more precise, they believe me in general, but they don’t apply that to themselves. They feel that they can trust their own judgment, and they feel comfortable with that.

SPIEGEL: Do we generally put too much faith in experts?

Kahneman: I’m not claiming that the predictions of experts are fundamentally worthless. … Take doctors. They’re often excellent when it comes to short-term predictions. But they’re often quite poor in predicting how a patient will be doing in five or 10 years. And they don’t know the difference. That’s the key.

So it turns out I may indeed like macadamias because they taste better. True expertise requires minimal randomness, lots of practice, and clear and prompt feedback. All of those should apply to eating nuts, especially for squirrels. I know I get lots of practice.

But just to be sure, I asked Chef to give me a macadamia and also a pecan from the pecan danish ring she’s serving for breakfast. I said I’d close my eyes and taste them, to see if I could tell them apart, so I would know if I’m an expert on nuts or just a snob.

Chef smiled and said I’d already had breakfast. Oh well. It was worth a try.

Good day and good nuts.