Are some beers overrated?
Nate wrote a great post about the topic where he says “Yes.”
He explains that certain beers are highly rated because a large group of people already deemed them superior, and it is difficult to go against the grain. I made a cameo appearance in the post because of a twitter comment to Nate about HopSlam being rated higher because it is scarce.
I’d like to follow up that comment up with a more in-depth discussion about about beer and scarcity. We can gain insight from the guy who understands purchasing behavior better than anyone else, Dr. Robert Cialdini.
When I read Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, a few things just clicked. It is a psychology book about persuasion and the triggers that compel us to make a purchase.
Personally, it was one of those “aha!” books that pulled back the veil on things I saw in everyday life, but never knew the mechanisms behind them.
Cialdini identifies 6 major triggers that compel us to say “yes”:
- Commitment and Consistency
- Social Proof
We could talk at length about each one, but let’s talk about scarcity since it sparked this discussion.
Cialdini sums up the scarcity principle by stating, “People assign more value to opportunities when they are less available.” Now most people would say “duh” to that, but they would be surprised by how often the principle influences their behavior and they don’t even realize it.
Apart from the obvious signals like “2 Hour-Sale” and “Everything Must Go”, the book gives two examples that I think are especially interesting where the scarcity concept isn’t so blatant.
Cialdini’s brother Richard sold cars in college but did so in a pretty unusual (but clever) way. He would buy used cars through newspaper ads at a fairly low price and then sell them back through the newspaper at a higher price for a profit. The clever part is the way he went about making the sale.
Say Richard advertised a car and got 3 responses. Naturally, the 3 prospective buyers would want to come inspect the car.
But here’s the unusual part – Richard would schedule their appointments at the same time.
The first person would do the typical walk around the car, kicking the tires and pointing out blemishes. In general he wouldn’t be completely thrilled about the car. Until the second person showed up…
The situation changed radically when buyer #2 arrived because the availabilty of the car suddenly became limited. A sense of rivalry formed between the two buyers. From the book:
“Richard claims it was possible to watch the agitation grow on the first buyers face. His leisurely assessment of the car’s pros and cons had suddenly become a now-or-never, limited-time-only rush to a decision over a contested resource.”
Cialdini further describes how if the arrival of buyer #2 wasn’t enough to seal the deal, when buyer #3 showed up the first buyer almost always decided to purchase immediately.
This study involved tasting cookies and rating them. From the book:
“Participants in a consumer preference study were given a chocolate chip cookie from a jar and asked to taste and rate its quality. For half of the raters, the jar contained ten cookies; for the other half, it contained just two. As we might expect from the scarcity principle, when the cookie was one of only two available, it was rated as more desirable to eat in the future, more attractive as a consumer item, and more costly than the identical cookie in abundant supply.”
Here is where things get more interesting. There was a variation in the study where some participants were first given a jar of 10 cookies that was replaced with a jar of 2 cookies. Describing the technique:
“Certain participants were told that some of their cookies had to be given away to other raters in order to supply the demand for cookies in the study. Another set of participants was told that the number of cookies had to be reduced because the researcher had simply made a mistake and given them the wrong jar initially. The results showed that those whose cookies became scarce through the process of social demand liked the cookies significantly more than did those whose cookies became scarce by mistake.”
Ok but here’s the surprising part. Even though the scarce cookies were rated more desirable, they were not rated as better tasting. It seems value of the cookies was in the possession of them and not in the experience.
I admit this sort of throws a wrench into my theory about beer ratings, but I don’t think this one study entirely debunks the idea. For example, the book says the participants “liked the (scarcer) cookies significantly more” than the less scarce cookies.
Doesn’t liking a beer more increase the rating you give it?
The Bottom Line
So let me be blunt and ask the question: do beers that are less available get rated higher just because they are scarce?
I say yes.
The scarcity effect comes into effect with many beers on the market: HopSlam, Pliny the Younger, and Westvleteren 12 for example. These are all beers that are limited in supply and are among the top rated beers in the world. I’m not saying they aren’t great beers, because I’m sure they are (I’ve only had HopSlam of the 3), but I have to believe that at least a part of their high rankings are due to the cookie jar effect. A fudge factor if you will.
It’s important to note that I’m not saying this effect is good or bad, it is simply part of being human. However, there are times when the influence of the scarcity effect is legitimate, such as when a limited supply of beer is produced, and there are times when it is manipulative, such as the car example.
Either way, when we are evaluating something on its merits alone we should try to leave psychological forces out of it (difficult, but possible). Cialdini advises us to realize when we respond desirably to a product for reasons other than its own utility. His words on defense:
“Panicky, feverish reactions have no place in wise compliance decisions. We need to calm ourselves and regain a rational perspective.”
What do you think? Does scarcity lead to inflated beer ratings?