The Sideways Effect

What propelled a little-known wine varietal to stardom in less than a year?

In the last post, I examined whether the “craze” of storytelling really belonged in the workplace or not. By looking at the lives of Edison and Disney, we learnt that stories are primal to the human condition. This week, we look to science to explain why they carry such power. In a podcast entitled “This is your brain on stories”, economist Stephen Dubner interviewed a cognitive neuroscientist about his efforts to create a “semantic atlas” of the brain. It was revolutionary work since, for a long time, researchers had believed that the function of language was restricted to specific parts of the brain’s left hemisphere. Research by Dubner’s guest, Dr Jack Gallant of USC Berkeley, revealed the exact opposite: the brain areas that process language are very broadly distributed across the cortex. Confining seven subjects to an FMRI machine, Gallant’s team played over two hours of episodes from The Moth Radio Hour, a broadcast in which speakers recount richly textured stories on a wide array of topics - mostly personal in nature. By tracking the blood flow in his subject’s brains Gallant proved that words aren’t just processed in the language centres. “They light up a large constellation of brain areas that represent different aspects of meaning,” he told Dubner. The implication? Stories engage our entire neural mainframe and, in the process, release a powerful cocktail of neurotransmitters that are vital for influencing others. These include Cortisol (which promotes attention), Oxytocin (also known as “the empathy drug”) and Dopamine (which promotes a sense of euphoria). Nowhere are Gallant’s results better vindicated than in a phenomenon called “The Sideways Effect”. Prior to 2004, American wine drinkers strongly preferred cabernet sauvignon and merlot, two varietals that grew easily in the Napa Valley and which had appealing price points. They had little interest in the more delicate varietals like Pinot Noir which was difficult to grow and commensurately more expensive. These preferences rapidly changed however in October 2004 with the release of the film Sideways. At first glance, it is the story about two guys on a boy’s weekend in the southern California Winelands. Jack is a course but playful bachelor who is soon to marry. All he wants to do is play a few rounds of golf, quaff whatever he can get his hands on and try for one last fling with the ladies. Miles is a divorcee, aspiring author and wine snob who has just received the umpteenth rejection letter from his publisher. Sideways might be a charming and simple film but it has a powerful legacy. Within months of its release, merlot went into freefall, upstaged by the little known pinot noir. Said wine industry expert Gabriel Froymovich in 2017, “Production of Pinot noir in California has increased roughly 170 per cent since Sideways was released". Nearly 15 years later, pinot noir remains the mainstay of the California wine industry. But how do we explain the “Sideways Effect”? While Jack Gallant’s research accounts for the neuro-chemical activity behind it, a study by Professors Melanie Green and Timothy Brock of Ohio State University explains the psychology of it. Very simply, viewers lost themselves in the story. “A compelling story with an emotional trigger,” points out American neuro economist Dr Paul Zak, “alters our brain chemistry, making us more trusting, understanding, and open to ideas”. This phenomenon is described by Green and Brock as “Transportation”, a theory that explains why some stories wield the power to make us relinquish our tightly held beliefs. There are two pre-requisites however: Firstly we must be able to identify with the characters and their struggles. Secondly, there must be rich use of metaphor. Sideways is a deft interplay of both. The richly layered characters are, despite their flaws, people with whom we can all identify. Further, Miles and Jack are walking metaphors: the latter is robust and resilient - a bit like the merlot or cabernet grapes that flourish in the Napa Valley. The former is complex and temperamental - not unlike a pinot noir grape that requires the care and attention of the best viticulturist. Not surprisingly, Miles has harboured a deep hatred for merlot since his wife, a merlot lover, walked out on him. "I am NOT drinking any f****** merlot!", he bellows one night at a private function. The movie’s greatest moment of transportation, however, is a metaphor-rich scene in which Miles enjoys a glass of wine with Maya, an acquaintance he has made during previous trips the Napa Valley. At one level, he seems to be extolling the virtues of pinot noir. At another, he is bearing his soul. The speech was moving at two levels. On the screen, it made Maya fall in love with Miles. Beyond the screen, it made millions of American wine-lovers reconsider their preference for merlot in favour of an expensive wine they knew little about. Watch the scene below: it is a poetic piece of scriptwriting


Stories are powerful. Science proves it. But perhaps Dominic Cobb, the hero of the movie Inception, puts it best:

"What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood. That sticks, right in there somewhere"

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