PSYCHOLOGY: Anxiety, Stress and Social Pressure Sabotage Choice

This is the next-to-last article in a series about the difficulties faced by retail wine buyers and the problems with the existing systems created to address that problem. The entire series


Wine stresses most people.

It embarrasses, frightens, confounds and creates an extreme sense of insecurity.

Wine has acquired a nasty reputation as a complicated, snobbish product category that is liberally sown with nuclear, hair-trigger land mines of social insecurity ready to annihilate a personal reputation, contract, job offer or heavy date with a single wrong twitch.


Snobbery and other needless complications create great friction in the consumer selection and purchase process. And why so many people simply throw up their hands and turn to beer, spirits and cocktails.

Sadly, snobs are an inevitable part of the environment, much like boors yakking on their phones in restaurants, Harleys without mufflers and public flatus.

Other than violent physical acts subject to felony arrest, little can be done about those environmental pollutants other than the ostracization, condemnation, and avoidance of the people who create and promote them.

For wine, creating a “normal human,” snob-free environment online and in real life can go a long way. For the others, I still lean toward violent physical acts.


There is nothing wrong with learning about wine. However, an oppressive myth persists that people must educate themselves with a graduate degree in order to enjoy wine.

No one needs a Ph.D. to figure out whether they prefer Coke over Pepsi or Coconut Water over Lemongrass. Ditto for wine.

But the popular press encourages this with articles like, “How to taste wine like a sommelier” and, “how to enjoy wine.”

To paraphrase the late Lauren Bacall, all you have to do to enjoy wine is to put your lips together and sip. If you like it, it’s good wine. Otherwise, not.

Education is not without worth for those who choose to go beyond enjoying the taste. Knowing more about wine, winemakers, how it’s made and other factors can enhance overall enjoyment. But that does not determine whether a consumer likes a wine. That’s between them and their genetically individual palate.

The concept that wine is complicated and education is required to enjoy it create more purchase decision friction.


Social pressure to conform and personal motivations to “fit in” are inevitably normal and affect every part of human interaction. However, wine has, unfortunately, become a luxury status symbol.

The snob establishment — eager to justify their own self worth and ego investment in wine, hover like harbingers of embarrassment over every potential “wrong” wine choice. The readiness to heap scorn on “poor” taste in wine preferences pollutes the entire wine preference environment.

The media, again, are ready to enforce this concept with articles like: “Forget the sweet swill, try a well-crafted rosé.” or, “How to Not Sound Stupid When Ordering Wine.”


One of the most common emails from consumer users of the SavvyTaste Facebook app addressed vino-insecurity over what I call the “Cupcake Syndrome.”

“I really like the app and its attitude,” wrote one reader. “But I have not used it [the FB app] because my name gets attached to my review. I really don’t want my friends to know that I really like Cupcake Cabernet better than their really expensive French reds.”

That consumer asked if he could post anonymously and still get recommendations. He explained that he was a top executive at a Fortune 500 corporation and had an image to maintain.


Anonymity was not an option with Facebook apps. However, it made me realize that social pressure was a major bias in online ratings. Anonymity, my gut told me, would provide maximum participation, honest and accuracy.

Scial media sharing has its limits in user satisfaction. Sharing photos of dogs, cats and sunsets was easy and the benefits were the risk free social connection.

But in product choices, preferences and recommendations, there were more opportunities for negative reactions and judgments. All with no guarantee of compensating benefits.

That realization was reinforced in 2014 with a scholarly journal article that confirmed my gut: Social pressure stops Facebook users recommending products on social media sites.

Besides social approbation, product opinion sharing increasingly risks the possibility that posts will be turned into advertisments and promotions without the poster’s consent.


A December 19, 2013 article in the MIT Sloan Management Review (The Problem With Online Ratings) points out the social biases and “dirty data” produced by current, non-anonymous, online rating methods

The author of that MIT Sloan article noted that online ratings are now the second-most most trusted sources of e-commerce recommendations despite the inherent biases caused by herd instincts:

“A few months ago, I stopped in for a quick bite to eat at Dojo, a restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village. I had an idea of what I thought of the place. Of course I did — I ate there and experienced it for myself.

“The food was okay. The service was okay. On average, it was average.

“So I went to rate the restaurant on Yelp with a strong idea of the star rating I would give it. I logged in, navigated to the page and clicked the button to write the review.

“I saw that, immediately to the right of where I would “click to rate,” a Yelp user named Shar H. was waxing poetic about Dojo’s “fresh and amazing, sweet and tart ginger dressing” — right under her bright red five-star rating.

“I couldn’t help but be moved. I had thought the place deserved a three, but Shar had a point: As she put it, “the prices here are amazing!”

Her review moved me. And I gave the place a four. As it turns out, my behavior is not uncommon. In fact, this type of social influence is dramatically biasing online ratings.”


Online systems that display previous ratings bias new ratings. And that pollutes the value of the data.

In addition, the same MIT Sloan article indicated that, “Amazon’s buyers are more likely to be positively predisposed to a product because they had voluntarily purchased it, creating a selection bias toward more positive ratings.”

Again, dirtier data than might be expected.

This predisposition can be minimized by dropping an odd-numbered product “rating” evaluation and replaced by an even-numbered, semantic rating system that stresses concrete consumer action rather than more subjective and easily biased ratings.


The average wine consumer should get a substantial level of confidence in their own taste and abilities by knowing the most exalted wine professionals and experts often succumb to all the same taste biases (See:An Examination of Judge Reliability at a major U.S. Wine Competition).

This article, alone, should give average consumers the confidence that, when it comes to selecting wine they like, their judgement is as good as the experts.


Peers pressure even the best palates.

It can come during a tasting panel or as an unpleasant aftermath.

On tasting panels, there is communication — verbal and non-verbal — indicating judgments. Did the alpha dog smile or frown. Was the sample rejected or retained for another tasting pass?

Panel members almost never arrive at the same rating or descriptions (Organoleptic Breakdown), but a consensus emerges due, in no small part, to peer pressure. This observation by a scientist/wine expert offers some solid data on that: Peer pressure brings wine scores toward the middle

Further, in large competitions, the results have to be voted on which pollutes the data a bit further (see: Big wine competitions have lots of problems)

Big wine competitions have lots of problems
Big wine competitions have lots of problems

Social pressure almost always pays some role in ratings or the decision to award a goal. And genetics is always inevitable (Genetic Chaos).

Punishment sometimes comes after the fact as this short anecdote will illustrate.

In the 1990s, I served for several years as a judge for the San Francisco International Wine Competition, one of the largest and most prestigious events of its kind.

The first year I judged, I was assigned to the White Zinfandel panel (something of a hazing ritual for freshmen, I learned.)

None of the panel members would admit to being a White Zin fan. I’m not fond of sweet tastes in general. (I dislike chocolate unless it’s at least 70% cocoa).

Despite that, we found wines that we felt were well-made despite the fact that none of us would admit to wanting to purchase any of them.

So, we did the unthinkable: We gave double-golds to two of the wines.

And for the rest of the tasting, numerous other judges razzed us about giving double gold’s to “pink swill.”

To be fair, our judgments were probably not very helpful purchasing data for White Zin lovers. It is entirely possible that we had selected the most UN-White-Zin wines of the lot.

The same may be said of most other varietals. The professional/expert judges on the basis of experience and education, not on whether they would personally buy or recommend the wine.

Because White Zins are rarely among the 25 percent of wines that are reviewed by wine reviewers, the only way that they (and lovers of other wines) can get really accurate buying recommendations is to connect with groups of people with like tastes who anonymously use an action-oriented, “buy, not buy” preference-based system.