Do you know any one who fancies themselves a connoisseur? Do they feel they are an aficionado, cognizant of the essential differences between designer garb and inferior everyday clothing? Or perhaps they consider themselves true gourmands, people who know how to appreciate a really good wine or fine pâté?

There are many people who consider themselves true cognoscenti, able to appreciate the finer things in life with a discerning eye, palate, or touch. These people often spend exorbitant amounts of money on wines, clothes, cars, paintings, chocolates, and many other products, because they consider it a small price to pay for the delicate pleasure that their refined senses receive from the object.

Research is starting to show that they may not be as refined as they think, but simply reacting to Pavlovian instincts. Pavlov was a Russian physician, psychologist, and physiologist (phenomenally phrodigious wouldn’t you say?) who did groundbreaking research in the area of conditioning. He found that most organisms, including humans, respond to stimuli in a predictable manner based on previous experiences, not necessarily on the merit of what is actually happening. His particular line of experimentation most heavily involved salivating dogs, so it might be prudent for us to look at something more relevant to us, conditioning in humans.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business just released a fascinating and somewhat frightening report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. They asked 20 people to sample wine while undergoing functional MRIs of their brain activity. The subjects were told they would be tasting five different Cabernet Sauvignons each sold at a different price. In reality, only three wines were offered, because two of them were given twice, marked with different prices. The three wines were valued at $90, $20, and $5, but the five dollar wine was also presented as a $45 wine, and the $90 wine as a $10 wine.

The results showed that the testers’ actually experienced more pleasure when drinking the “higher priced wine” than when drinking the lower one, even when the wine itself was exactly the same. This was demonstrated by greater activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that registers pleasure. Ironically, when the wines were presented again without any “prices,” the $5 wine was the one that got the highest rating. This indicates that humans are conditioned to experience more pleasure from items when they think they are more expensive!

“We have known for a long time that people’s perceptions are affected by marketing, but now we know that the brain itself is modulated by price,” said Baba Shiv, an associate professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and one of the authors of the study. “Marketers are now going to think twice about reducing the price.”

This occurrence isn’t limited to wine. Americans spent $15 billion on bottled water last year, even though the tap water in many cities is cleaner and better than bottled water. In San Francisco, the municipal water comes from Yosemite National Park. It’s so good that the EPA doesn’t require San Francisco to filter it. But that doesn’t stop people from buying millions of bottles of inferior water just because it’s perceived as better. However, in blind taste tests, with waters at equal temperatures, presented in identical glasses, ordinary people can rarely distinguish between tap water, spring water, and luxury waters. At the height of Perrier’s popularity, Bruce Nevins, the CEO of Perrier, was asked on a live network radio show one morning to pick Perrier from a lineup of seven carbonated waters served in paper cups. It took him five tries.

I have been to many events or simchas where I hear people waxing poetic about Grey Goose vodka or some other ultra-premium brand that is the ‘best vodka in the world.” But when the New York Times performed a triple blind test with a panel of vodka experts (is that just a nice way of saying alcoholics?), the hands down winner was the cheapest vodka in the sample – Smirnoff. It seems like a lot of people are wasting a lot of money for bragging rights that aren’t rooted in reality.

Let’s look at the clothing industry for a moment. Many people walk around talking about the superior quality of designer clothing. They can “just feel” the difference. My friend’s father is a shirt manufacturer, and he told me that he often makes the exact same shirt for two labels, one a high-end designer label and one a lower-end label. Furthermore, the international Journal of Consumer Studies (Volume 30 Issue 2 Page 218-223) did a study to determine how consumers evaluate the quality. An analysis of the data indicated that up to 75% of the respondents evaluated clothing based on brand recognition and other informational cues, but not on intrinsic quality of the garment. Although we think we can “just feel” the difference, the data seems to indicate that we “just think” the difference more than feel it.

In a study conducted for the Private Label Manufacturers Association (PLMA) by Meyers Research Center, 51% of the consumers who participated in double-blind taste tests said they preferred the taste of private label products over the national brand version in 12 product categories. Often they are made in the exact same plant! Yet, people more frequently buy the nationally recognized brand, and at a higher price than the private labels.

The crazy thing is that this conditioning phenomenon even occurs in the medical field. In one placebo study, conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and Princeton University, volunteers put inside MRI machines had either electric shocks or heat applied to their arms. The pain activated all the expected neural pathways. Then researchers smeared on a cream they said would block the pain. In fact, it was a regular skin lotion. When the volunteers were zapped again, they reported significantly less pain — and pain circuits in the brain showed they really felt better. Those were the same brain regions that respond to painkilling medication. Then researchers spread on cream again, this time telling the volunteers it was a placebo — and they hurt all over again.

The most astonishing incident of human conditioning was found in a 2002, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Baylor College of Medicine study found in the July 11, 2002 New England Journal of Medicine. They took 180 patients who needed arthroscopic surgery on their knees, and explained to them the terms of the study. Two groups of sixty underwent two different types of arthroscopic surgery, while the remaining sixty were simply anesthetized, cut open, and then sewn back up. During two years of follow-up, patients in all three groups reported moderate improvements in pain and ability to function.

However, neither of the groups that received actual treatment reported less pain or better function than the placebo group. Indeed, the placebo patients reported better outcomes than the treatment patients at certain points during follow-up! “The fact that the effectiveness of arthroscopic surgery in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee is no greater than that of placebo surgery makes us question whether the dollars spent on these procedures might not be put to better use,” said lead investigator Dr. Nelda P. Wray.

Although the fact that we can be so easily conditioned is at times disheartening, it can also be empowering. It tells us that people will respond to certain stimuli in a predictable manner. If we can somehow condition our children to believe in their individual greatness, they will begin to feel it. Once they feel it, they will act upon it. This is not done by telling them they are geniuses or by exclaiming that they are beautiful (things that even when true were never worked on), but rather by celebrating their hard work, generosity, easy going nature, or self control whenever they display it.

The conditioning element is not a large price tag, not fake surgery, but rather incredible amounts of genuine positive reinforcement whenever our children do something right. Studies show that of every twenty comments parents make to their children, only one is positive! The other 19 comments are conditioning as well, but they are conditioning the child to have a negative self image, something that will haunt both them and us down the road. Try to focus on making one positive comment for every negative one you make, and see what a great difference it will make!

This conditioning need not only apply to our children; we should apply it to our spouses, and even to ourselves. How often do we think negatively about ourselves, “I’m such a dummy,” or “I’m just a failure, I’ll never get…” Talking like that is conditioning, and we will respond by predictably failing. If we can learn to talk to ourselves and to our spouses in a more positive, uplifting manner, we can change our entire reality. How we talk and think is the price tag we put on ourselves. Let’s keep it high!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to the manna, the spiritual food that the Jews ate for the forty years they were in the desert. It had many amazing qualities. It would miraculously just “be” there in the morning, right outside your tent if you were righteous, and farther away if you were not. It tasted like anything you thought of, it contained no waste (people never had to use the restroom), and it disappeared if you tried to leave it over night. If you collected too much or too little, by the time you got home, you would miraculously have the right amount, and on Fridays you automatically got double so you would have manna for Shabbos as well.

There is a famous question asked about the manna. It seems that this gift deprived the wealthy of a very important mitzvah to which they were accustomed, the mitzvah of charity. If everyone is getting food delivered to their houses by G-d daily, who needed charity, and how were the wealthy people able to continue that important mitzvah?

One of the answers is that the kindness and charity the wealthy people were able to perform was food coaching. The poor people grew up their whole lives without knowing that there is anything in the world more delicious than a peanut butter and fluff sandwich! Therefore they couldn’t conjure up an aged marinated steak grilled to perfection, or black truffle tagliatelle with preserved lemon and aged parmesan! If they couldn’t think of it, they couldn’t taste it The people who had grown up with more affluence could then provide a service to the people who had grown up in more strained economic environments by teaching them about all sorts of gourmet delights that they would now be able to conjure up in their minds and thus taste.

This past Shabbos I met a woman who does that kind of tzedaka. She teaches in the inner city of Cleveland, and she tries to help her students understand that there are greater dreams in life than an Escalade with 22 inch rims! Unfortunately, the culture they are in is one that makes them have very limited imaginations and vision, and she tries to open their minds and teach them about great dreams they don’t even know they can aspire to.

We too can perform this kind of tzedaka. Every time we see someone limiting themselves, making statements indicating that they can’t do something, or expressing very low aspirations, it is our duty to help them see brighter, dream bigger, and aspire limitlessly!

Parsha Summary

This week’s portion begins with the Jews turning back to Egypt after having been driven away just a few days earlier. Their goal was to fool the Egyptians into thinking that they were trapped by the desert, and prompting the Egyptians to come pursue them, which they did. Pharaoh led his men, in full battle formation, in chasing down the Jews, and they caught them right by the See of Reeds.

The Jews were trapped between a sea and a hard nation, but Moshe told them that they could be confident as G-d would fight for them. Then Moshe told the people to keep on traveling as if there was no sea before them, but most of the people were too scared. Nachshon the son of Aminadav was the first to plunge into the waters and, just as they were about to drown him, the sea split and the entire Jewish people was able to cross through the sea onto dry land. The Egyptians followed, but for them, the sea didn’t remain standing. Upon the bidding of G-d, Moshe picked up his staff, and the waters came crashing back down on the Egyptians.

The Jews, upon seeing G-d’s greatness and miracles, broke out in song, together as one. They sang Az Yashir, a most poetic and beautiful song that is still said daily as part of the morning prayers. The Jews were able to collect enormous amounts of gold that the Egyptians brought with them to war, and eventually had to be pulled away from the sea.

They then came to a place called Marah, where they found the water to be bitter, but G-d told Moshe to throw a tree into the water and they were sweetened. There the Jews learnt some Halachot including the laws of Shabbos. Soon afterward the Jews complained about the lack of food, and G-d gave them the manna. After that they complained about the lack of water and G-d told Moshe to hit a rock and water came out (it’s later in Deuteronomy is when G-d tells him to speak to the rock).

After that, the Jews had their first battle with their archenemy Amalek. The Amalekim knew it would be suicidal to attack the Jews after all the miracles G-d had done to protect them, but did so anyway, just to show the world that it was possible to still attack the Jews. Moshe ascended a mountain overlooking the battle. When he raised his hands, the Jewish people would look up and remember G-d, and they would be victorious, but when he would lower his hands the Jews would lose. Evidently Moshe kept them up more than down, as the Jews won! That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: Unhappiness is not knowing what we want, and killing ourselves to get it. –Don Herold

Random Fact of the Week: Penguins have an organ on their foreheads that desalinizes water.

Funny Line of the Week: Personally, I’m waiting for Caller IQ.

Have a Sprightly Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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