Passive perceptual learning in relation to wine

By mthomas

This experiment by Angus Hughson and Robert Boakes from the University of Sydney addressed the question of whether untutored experience of drinking wine improves the ability to discriminate between wines.  Using a short-term recognition task a two-factor design compared more experienced and less experienced wine drinkers (intermediate vs. novices) and a condition requiring description of the to-be-remembered wine samples with a control condition.  Their findings suggest that intermediates were generally more accurate than novices in selecting the target sample from a distractor set.  The procedure was modelled on a previous study in which verbal descriptions reduced the performance of intermediates (verbalovershadowing), but here both novices and intermediates performed better in the description than in the control condition.  The major result was to demonstrate that untutored experience can improve wine recognition (passive perceptual learning).

People with longer experience of wine drinking, but not much greater knowledge, perform better in a wine identification task. However the size of the effect was not large and, given the way in which exposure to a stimuli would be expected to enhance perceptual ability, might be smaller because of a number of variables. Firstly, exposure benefits tend to come from the initial exposures (sometimes as low as four with smell). Secondly, the use of dark tasting glasses may have confounded the effect of experience by reducing available ‘imprinted’ information. Thirdly, wine experts tend not to perform as well as would be expected in simple discrimination tests. Hughson and Boakes cite Lawless (1984) and Parr et al (2002) as evidence of this. They suggest that high levels of discrimation demonstrated by experts usually relate to training in more specialized vocabulary and specific knowledge (such as that associated with Australian Chardonnays from the same vintage but from different regions) rather than extensive experience of drinking wine.

Another finding, that verbal instruction can facilitate performance, supports continued use of ‘label training’ in wine evaluation courses i.e. the aim of developing the ability to produce conistent labels for the sensory elements of wine. This can be at a general level such as ‘fruity’ or more specific such as ‘damson’. This has often been contentious, in part I think because of the accusations of ‘purple prose’ and pretension associated with such behaviour. Perhaps more salient was the evidence they present to contradict the suggestion that this type of teaching might not be effective due to verbal overshadowing.

To an experienced educator the findings make sense in terms of the limited utility of exposure to a learning opportunity without some mediation by a skilled and experienced instructor.

The paper is published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 2009, 62 (1), 1-8

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