The Power of Suggestion

By G. L. Pease
Not long ago, on a hot, sultry evening, I was out back, grilling chicken and burgers for the evening dinner – on days like that, the thought of standing at the stove, or turning on the oven finds me wanting to run to the nearest walk-in freezer and take up permanent residence – while puffing on a bowl of what I thought was my usual choice of tobaccos for hot summer smoking.
If you’ve read along for a while, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of heavy Latakia mixtures in the heat of summer, and often forgo the pipe completely in favor of a good cigar. Cigars were born in hot, humid climates, and are as welcome for outdoor cooking as a Panama hat and dark specs. The pipe? The right blend works, and my choice of a particular mixture sporting a little cigar leaf and not too much Latakia has worked really well for me since I accidentally discovered it some time ago. But, full Latakia mixtures? Never! They’re just too bold, too assertive, too fatiguing to the palate during the dog days’ swelter.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop? Here it is: I was actually smoking a full Latakia blend that I was working on at the time. My brain, dramatically addled by the heat of the day, managed to completely forget what I was smoking, and filled in the missing information through association. "He’s outdoors, grilling, smoking a pipe. It’s got to be Key Largo. Yes. That’s what it is." I didn’t argue. Of course, as soon as the realization came to consciousness, the tobacco mysteriously transformed. I was no longer enjoying my ritual grill-time smoke, but feeling a little silly over this ridiculous mistake, lost my pleasure in the smoke.

That’s the power of suggestion. Twice. First, the thought of smoking something I truly enjoy, at a time when I truly enjoy it had a stronger influence over the actual experience than it probably should have. Really, I should have known. I was smoking a pipe dedicated to full Latakia mixtures, so it must have been one, right? And, it was at a time when I was busy working on the formula for what was to become Lagonda, so what else would I be smoking, but full Latakia mixtures, mostly prototypes. What’s worse is that I consciously set out to smoke these prototypes during the hotter days, just to see if it might overcome my prejudice. After all, there are plenty of pipesters who enjoy full mixtures even on days that feel to me like I’ve been strapped, half dead, to the squeaking iron doors of hell’s furnace.

I simply forgot, momentarily, but completely, what I was smoking, and the coyote in my head hypnotized me into thinking I was smoking something I wasn’t. I could taste all those subtle nuances – the cigar leaf underpinning the sweet virginias and spicy orientals; the hint of Cyprus’s smoky stuff adding a nice depth, some bass notes for the rest of the tune to counterpoint. And, none of it was real. Certainly, there were enough cues in the smoke to keep the delusion going for a while. The Latakia was there, the virginias, the orientals, but the cigar leaf was completely absent, and the balance of the rest of the tobaccos was totally different.

I once read in a book on wine tasting that many people, blindfolded, wouldn’t be able to tell if they were served a white wine or a red. I didn’t believe it, and still am not sure that I do, but here’s a tiny speck of evidence that slightly supports the claim. Certainly, I’m reasonably acquainted with the blends I smoke, especially the ones I make. If anyone should be able to tell the difference between one and another, it should be me, right? (Just nod your head in agreement. I’m making a point.) But, I was completely bamboozled this time by other factors. Habituation, set and setting, and environment, were supported by just enough sensory clues, and I was all in, fully convinced, and quite wrong.

The second way this sinister power spellbound me was when I realized I was not smoking what I thought I was, and suddenly, though I’d been enjoying it immensely just moments before, found myself not at all happy with what was in my pipe. The coyote again. "You don’t like full mixtures in the summer. You even wrote a column about it, remember?" Yeah, I remember. I cashed the cheque. Never mind that I’d been smoking prototypes of the stuff for weeks, in all the myriad weather we’d had. (This summer’s been exceedingly weird, with days ranging from almost cold to blistering, sometimes in the same week. It’s actually been great for exploring different blends under the influence of different environmental conditions, but enough already. Bring on fall, please.)

Of course, this immediately called into question some of the assertions I’ve made in the past about what I like, what I don’t like, when I do or don’t like them, and why. Given how easily I was fooled that day at the grill, how much of any of that is really true?

None of us are immune to the power of suggestion. Peer pressure, the bane of adolescence, or at least the parents of adolescents, isn’t lacking in influence even amongst our coterie of sophisticated, thoughtful, rational pipe smoking adults. We all get sucked in, sometimes, even when we know it’s happening.

This all came back
to mind when I received an email from an overseas friend to whom I’d sent some samples of some of my fave vintage weeds. Amongst other things, he wrote, "A day fishing, a good meal, good wine, and time to try the OE. Am I prejudiced because you like it? Don’t know. But, I certainly do!" Even my wise and learned friend is fully aware of the possibility of being seduced by his expectations borne from my own enthusiasm over the tobacco.

We’re surrounded by suggestion every day, and now that we, as pipe smokers, have such a large, active and diverse on-line community, with the ability to share our thoughts and impressions at the press of a few buttons, those suggestions may now be influencing our collective tastes. Every time someone posts in a "What are you smoking" thread, and we read it, we undergo a subtle shift. If we like the blend being discussed, we might find ourselves wanting a bowl. If we don’t, we might unconsciously press the tastes of our colleague under the thumb of scrutiny. Or, perhaps we’re on the fence about something, and that little message we read in the morning might push us off over the edge to click the "order now" button before tumbling to the ground. On the other side of this is that something we might otherwise like may be so apparently universally reviled by our electronic cohorts, so it seems, that we might find ourselves reluctant to go exploring for ourselves, and even if we do, we might be less likely to talk freely about it. (Some tobaccos have possibly rightfully earned their bad reputations, but, these tobaccos clearly continue to sell well, or 1) they wouldn’t be on the market, and 2) we wouldn’t all know about them.)

Naturally, there are those who will consciously buck the trend, fashioning themselves as the rugged individualist, uninfluenced by the vox populi. In fact, that, too, is a result of suggestion, and these self-styled iconoclasts may well e missing out on some fantastic experiences simply because they choose to oppose the stream of influence of popular opinion.

As a different sort of illustration, I recall the big Bordeaux hype over the 1982 vintage. "The vintage of the century!" we were told. (It wasn’t the first of those, neither was it the last, but in my recollection, it was certainly one of the loudest.) Wine lovers scurried out to stock their cellars with the big, bold, and truly spectacular ’82s, many completely ignoring the under-hyped, stellar wines of the two adjacent years. Personally, I found as much, if not more pleasure in the ’81 and ’83 vintages, which was certainly to my advantage, at least as regards my wallet at the time. But, the press was abuzz over the ’82s, and the sales were brisk. People spent a fortune. Good for them, it was a great vintage. But it drew a lot of attention away from some other wonderful wines. I’d like to say that my own buying decisions were based solely on my own palate, but I have to confess that two other influences played a non-insignificant role. The ’82s certainly tended to cost more, which put a lot of the better ones out of my reach, but I also enjoyed the delusion that I was being one of those bold, iconoclastic trend-buckers I mentioned in the previous paragraph. I told myself that I was buying the ’81s and ’83s not only because I liked them, which I did, but because they were better, I was better, because I wasn’t taking a ride on that noisy, crowded ’82 bandwagon packed with those under the thrall of the Svengali like wine experts and their newsletters. In retrospect, though I did get some exquisite wines from the ’81 and ’83 vintages, I also missed out on opportunities to get some pretty great ’82s.

So, what’s my point? Just this: Sometimes, just maybe, we might find ourselves liking something we otherwise might not, simply because we subconsciously think we should based on what we’ve read what we’ve been told, or the situation in which we’re smoking it, or any other factor. Conversely, we may think we dislike something we otherwise might really enjoy for similar reasons. Of course, this doesn’t always happen, we’re not always some some sort of gustatory trance, but it might happen more often that we’d like to admit. It’s dangerous to underestimate the power of suggestion.
But, does any of this really matter? Taste is not an objective thing, and very few of us are in a position where we have to be objective in our pipe smoking. Generally, we either like or dislike something, and in the end, who really gives a flying fig why, as long as we’re deriving the greatest pleasure possible from the time spent with our beloved briars.

What I might suggest, though, is that once in a while, it might be a good idea to do a little sanity check, a little sensory housecleaning where we leave our preconceptions at the door, and see if the coyote’s power of suggestion might have been causing us to delude ourselves in some subtle way. We should try something we don’t think we’ll like, or smoke a blend we prefer in the winter on a blistering hot day. Exploring a style of tobacco we’ve never have before might be an interesting experience. We might not find gold in these little mining adventures, but a door of perception may be opened, through which a new dimension of enjoyment might be found. What could it hurt? We can always go back. Or, can we?

I’ll end with a quote from a Fleetwood Mac song, written by their then guitarist, Bob Welch.

Now you know it’s a meaningless question
To ask if these stories are right.
‘Cause what matters most is the feeling
You get when you’re hypnotized.

Your turn.



Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He’s been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and creator of The Epicure’s Asylum.

See our interview with G. L. Pease here.

20 Responses

  • This is so true, and sometimes the opposite can happen as well. There have been some occasions where someone has told me that a tobacco blend is completely amazing, the best thing I will ever smoke. Then my expectations get set so high that I end up disappointed, thinking the blend wasn’t so good after all. Perhaps I may have enjoyed it more had there been no overinflated presumptions.

  • I enjoyed the article as it made me think about some of the tobaccos I do and don’t smoke. The why’s and when’s I chose a particular tin is often tied to what has been good before under certain conditions, and the expectations are more of the same. Sometimes a little adventure is challenging, but often rewarding.

  • What a terrific article, Greg! Your use of frank but thoughtful revelations of your own fallibility is refreshingly disarming, and you’ve stopped short of suggesting that there is some kind of antiheroic motive behind your candor. I experience the same phenomenon all the time, and it has been difficult at times to sort out how much I want to allow my tastes to develop in response to those of people who I like or don’t like. I thouroughly enjoyed your perspective on the subject. It was definitely worth it to stay up until 2AM writing it!

  • Interesting article. The same is true with pipes. If it was possible to produce 2 identical pipes, 1 without any markings, and the other stamped Dunhill, I bet most people who smoked them both would say the Dunhill smokes the better due to placebo effect.

  • Thank you Greg, (you) for your spot on observations (must) of the influence others have (buy) upon us all. I really enjoyed (tobacco) this article…
    I love the Fleetwood Mac reference… One of my favorite albums.
    That reminds me I need to go to my B&M… Need some tobacco…

  • Great article. I’m really interested in now seeing if I can tell the difference between red and white wine blindfolded! I have only been pipe smoking for a month and change now, but I can definitely say that I do not like smoking in this hot Texas weather; the type of backy does not matter at this point in my smoking career. I can not wait til the cooler months! Looking forward to the next article. Work hard like always!

  • I was thinking about this the other day about always trying to find my “favorite” tobacco, something I couldn’t quite pin down yet [insert mythical spicy oriental tobacco]. It occurred to me that my favorite tobaccos were not the new jazz on the horizon (although, Lagonda is amazing) but the ones I take for granted as great common smokes, the blends I have purchased more than once and make sure to keep stock, are really my “favorites” I can’t live without. Tobaccos like Maltese Falcon down to even Lane HS-3. When I smoke them, I’m totally contented, but I never previously considered that these were what I loved best, not some setting-down point from out-of-reach mail order mythical tobacco blend I haven’t yet tried. Great piece Mr. Pease.

  • Superb article as always and a thoughtful approach to how emotion and perception colors so much of our experience, as well as a genteel reminder that a single experience isn’t always indicative of the total experience.

  • So true!
    To share embarrassing experiences, the first time I tasted Lagonda I commented that the Perique content was about equivalent to that in Dunhill Nightcap (not a lot but certainly detectable) whilst doing a side by side comparison. There is no Perique in Lagonda but I detected it because I expected it following earlier blends in the Old London series!

  • Thank you, Benjamin. And, I agree, mostly. I, too, have the blends that I can smoke comfortably, that are easy, that I no longer have to ponder and focus on in order to enjoy their charms. They’ve become, over time, more graceful, or at least the relationship has eased, and so they appear that way. But, new mixtures, like new shoes and new friends, have their own pleasures, and some of those, in time, will become comfortable, too, especially once we abandon what might be unreasonable expectations, and just accept.
    And, Jim, something similar happened to me during the development of the Classic Collection. Blackpoint came about because of a very old tin of 759 that a friend had just opened. I got the impression of perique, though I knew it wasn’t a component of the blend, and couldn’t shake it off. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. That night, when I decided to make my own impressionistic painting of that smoke, that experience, I added a bit of perique to the blend I was working on, and there it was; Blackpoint was born!

  • Very right on point Greg! I have thought for a long time that the power of suggestion effects us all in ways we do not understand. In my industry we call it “spin” where something is made out to be either good or bad based on remarks or the opinions of others. I especially liked the term “coyote in my head” which I will use myself going forward. I also agree totally with the concept that if we smoke a pipe with a white dot on the bit the pipe will automatically seem to smoke better – and this is probably the case with many high end pipe brands to those who enjoy them.

  • Les, I think there’s something to the role of suggestibility in appreciating fine pipes; as a group, especially if we’re collectors, we’re probably more likely to enjoy a pipe that we like, aesthetically, than one we don’t. But, I don’t think it’s the only thing. Different pipes certainly offer different flavor profiles, different smoking dynamics, and so on. It’s quite possible that our Dunhills really do taste different and smoke differently from other pipes in our herds. Whether or not this is “better” is more subjective, but I don’t underestimate the influence of the White Spot Effect.

    The Coyote, by the way, is a trickster in many native American myth stories, which led me to coin the expression, “Coyote in my head.”

  • I guess this means I need to try that unopened box of Mix 79 I have???
    This ties into the assumption I have that the other person’s tobacco smells so good it wants me to smoke it…

  • I like the way you tell us that other smokers’ opinions can vault a blend clear over the top notch when in fact it may not really be all that. Like in your experience with the ’82 wines for example. It almost seems that the ’82s’ had cost more to make and as a result the manufacturer may have been afraid it’wouldn’t sell as well. So, they created a ‘spin’ on the vintage and hyped it up and he bandwagon filled up with STO to spare! You on the other hand had to check out what’s on either side of the ’82. Nice going man.
    Myself, in the case of VA’s have, since many years past gotten stuck on Blakneys Best Tawney Flakes. While it’s not the heavenly honey/hay taste and aroma of many nice VAs I lean towards this blend despite what others say. In some places it’s not too popular. For instance at its sales rank is 251! Now a person that is weak enough to go on that statistic they would in my opinion be depriving themselves of a rather nice smoke.
    After reading your current article we all seem to have stopped to think, “Am I being hoodwinked into selecting only what is rated highest?”

  • Greg – you certainly have a way of provoking my thought processes. I’ve always considered your blends as instigating massive bouts of contemplation, like nicely aged Grand Crus. At the opposite end of the contemplation, but not enjoyment, spectrum, are light whites like the Portuguese Vinho Verde, which I appreciate immensely (especially in the heat of summer). But VV is not a wine to contemplate but rather one to enjoy in its apparent simplicity.
    Two questions: are your blends more complex and more prone to contemplation when they are fresh? Will age not only mellow them but also blur some of the shifts in flavor?
    And, which of your blends do you consider the least complex?

  • Tony, ratings are interesting things. The number of stars a blend may have next to it doesn’t tell much of a story. I was looking for a specific product, and turned to an on-line seller to find it. This seller publishes customer reviews, and each one has a 1-5 star rating associated with it. After reading a few of the 1-star ratings, it became clear that the “reviewer” had nothing resembling a clue, that there was nothing at all wrong with the product, that they’d bought the wrong thing and then complained because it didn’t do what they thought it should. Their published bitching was really nothing more than proof of their own ignorance, yet, these customer “reviews” counted against the overall review of the product. Interestingly, all the 5-star reviews were written by people who actually understood what they were buying, and knew how to use it. Imagine someone complaining because they bought a bicycle, and found it unsatisfactory because they had only one leg, and couldn’t get it to do what the advertisement clearly said it would. (Now, I shall reveal my often intense frustration at the “reviews” of some of my products in which someone moans about the inclusion of Latakia, a tobacco they clearly despise, despite the fact that it’s clearly labeled as containing the vile substance on the tin. *grumble* “This is a Latakia blend, and I hate Latakia, so I hate this blend, and I give it one star because it is exactly what it says it is.” Thanks.)
    Les, I’m not sure I can answer the question on which of my blends is least complex. It’s probably Union Square, though I’d hardly consider it simple. Those virginias have a lot going on, and it changes so much with age. Maybe Barbary Coast, which relies a lot on the brandy topping to give it its dominant character? But, even there, there’s a lot going on both in the aroma and the taste. I can’t do it. Someone else will have to field that one. 😉

  • Complexity is a funny thing – it’s very complex!
    I think that sometimes a blend that is complex produces a simple taste which is surely an indication that things have come together well?

  • I like your thinking, Jim. But, integrated and simple, I think, are different things, adding to the complexity.

  • I have recently come across your blends and have started with Westminster. I like it very much – but have found that the taste varies a bit from bowl to bowl. Now I have been an english mixture smoker for 50 years with a heavy emphasis on Dunhill – especially 965 and Nightcap – (also Early Morning and Aperitif). Westminster – to me at least – is in the same mould, apart from one thing – the CUT – it is too coarse, which probably explains the variations in taste I have experienced.
    Is there any way that you could get the same size cut as the typical old style english mixtures (Dunhill, Rattray, Balkan Sobranie, Four Square) ?
    Now there may be a very good reason for the cut in Westminster – and the size of the cut CAN inter alia affect the taste, But changing the cut size would improve both the consistency and the enjoyment of the individual pipefull in my “humble” opinion.
    It may simply also be that my age is starting to show.
    Best wishes and enjoy a good pipe with a single malt.