More About The Willat Effect

The Willat Effect is the hedonic change produced by side-by-side comparisons of similar products — for example, two green teas. It happens in seconds: Suddenly the differences matter more. Some versions become more pleasant, other versions less pleasant.  I first noticed it with limoncello that my friend Carl Willat offered me. Here are some reactions to my recent post about it:

1. A Facebook comment from a friend of Carl’s:

I too can confirm the existence of The Willat Effect. Example: I’ll look at a coat that feels and looks great, see the price and say I can’t afford this. Then I’ll try another on and it’s close to the first but not quite but it’s also 300 dollars less. I opt for the first, spending more. Carl’s taught me to never settle for second best. And he doesn’t make a bad limoncello either.

Yes to both. I recently went bike shopping in Beijing. I asked a Chinese friend who makes the best bikes: Giant, she said. A Taiwanese company. I found a Giant store. I chose the model I wanted. I test-drove it. Fine, except the seat was too short. This could not be fixed, they said. I didn’t like any other Giant model. I would have to buy a different make of bike. There were other bike stores nearby, all with cheaper bikes. (Giant bikes cost about 40% more than the next most costly.) I tested a few. The cheaper bikes were clearly worse than the Giant bike: less smooth ride. Too bad for me. I chose one to buy. The problem of too-short seat remained, but the seller said he could fix it. He brought out a longer neck that could be attached to a seat. I bought the longer neck, took it to the Giant store, and got my first-choice bike. I am especially pleased how smoothly it rides. In the Giant store (franchise), there was no bargaining — the sticker price was the actual price — and the employees were standoffish. In the other stores (non-franchise), you could bargain and the employees were friendly. This talk mentions the very smooth ride of a very expensive car.

2. A Boing Boing post about this linked to a side-by-side comparison of expensive cameras — that is, a side-by-side comparison of the pictures they take. As David Scrimshaw commented, this sh** is dangerous. It could make me dissatisfied with what was previously (and in other ways still is) perfectly acceptable.

3. I compared black tea steeped for 3 minutes with the same tea steeped for 5 minutes. I tasted them side by side. I have been drinking black tea for 10 years. For the first time I noticed that the 5-minute tea had a strong bitter note unnoticeable in the 3-minute tea. People had told me that if you steep black tea too long it becomes bitter. I thought they meant if you steep it for 8 minutes it becomes bitter. I routinely steeped black tea 5 minutes. I told someone about this and he said rinse the tea first. This made no sense (experienced tea drinkers rinse certain green teas, not black teas) but I tried it. I found that ten seconds of rinsing (add water, wait 10 seconds, discard water) didn’t eliminate the bitterness. There was no clear difference between rinsed and unrinsed tea.

4. I agree with commenters who said I should taste my tea “blind” — not knowing the price. That’s a good idea. During a tea-tasting tour of Beijing (which did not include side-by-side comparisons of similar teas and had little effect on my green tea consumption), I learned that at the wholesale level green tea leaves are priced lot by lot. The buyer tastes tea made from the tea leaves for sale and offers a price. If I notice a correlation for green tea between cost and how much I like it, it presumably reflects this earlier process.  As far as I can tell in Beijing there is no advertising for different varieties of green tea. Tea stores usually sell it in bulk in identical bins. No packaging, no boasts or claims.

5. Does the effect happen because I knew the teas cost different prices? I doubt it. During the first example, with limoncello, I had no idea of the prices. The homemade limoncellos, which were not identified, had no price. I have noticed the effect with YouTube videos (different covers of one song), which are free. I have done side-by-side tastings of cheeses, wines, etc., that varied greatly in price countless times. No Willat Effect, presumably because they weren’t similar enough (e.g., the two wines came from different lines of grapes). But I agree it would be nice to eliminate the effect of price differences.

6. Wangston commented: “More expensive things taste better because rarity is delicious.”  There is certainly pressure to say expensive things taste better. You/we are supposed to think that. Millions of advertisers would like us to think that. Surely the phrase the finer things in life came from an ad. Maybe ads are where the pressure comes from. In my experience, without side-by-side comparisons more expensive things usually do not taste better.  For example, I have never done side-by-side comparisons of wine. And  expensive wines ($30/bottle) taste no better than much cheaper wines ($10/bottle). Before I did side-by-side cheese tastings, $30/pound cheese tasted no better than $10/pound cheese. After side-by-side cheese tastings, only then did I notice and care about the difference. I started to pay much more for cheese. I wish I could make the cheap stuff taste better but every time (tea, cheese, orange marmalade, sake) the expensive stuff turns out to be what tastes better. Contradicting the “rational actor” assumption of economists.

7. Robin Barooah commented that with experience you form a mental map of the product space. He is “something of a coffee connoisseur” and has a mental map of the coffee space. This has allowed him to enjoy less-than-the-best coffees because they have their place and he enjoys brewing them in different ways.  My limited experience entirely supports this. I have never gone far with these close comparisons. I am not a connoisseur of anything. But from my mere two weeks of close tea comparisons I feel the beginnings of a mental map. I hope, as Robin says, it will allow me to enjoy tea I can afford. In Beijing, the most expensive tea is insanely expensive — like $1000/pound.


16 Replies to “More About The Willat Effect”

  1. We’ve just done a gin test, in the form of G&T with a slice of lime: Gordon’s vs Beefeater vs Bombay Sapphire vs Adnam’s First Rate.

    Conclusion: We do like G&T. The choice of gin is secondary, but perhaps the Bombay Sapphire edged it. Maybe we’ll compare tonics some day.

  2. A couple of years ago we were lucky enough to be invited to a Bordeaux wine dinner (my favorite wine at that time), featuring wines that STARTED at $85/bottle.
    I discovered that it would be foolish for me to spend (allowing that I could) over $250 a bottle, because my palate could not distinguish between the wines above that price level. Up to $250, I could taste differences; the one I liked best was not the most expensive, but close.
    This experiment (if I can call it that) left me with new ideas about professional wine tasters: can they REALLY tell the difference? I’m skeptical, but if they can, they have my profound respect.

  3. I have long known of this effect, but I hadn’t framed it quite this way. I have a good memory for taste, so I am able to imagine foods side by side even if sampled at different times. I have long tried to avoid even a taste of premium foodstuffs when offered to me, if I know that I will not be able to afford them after the free taste. I was happy with my cheap tea, chocolate, cheese, etc., until I tried the better versions. Now I am forced to compromise either my eating pleasure or my budget on the things where I didn’t resist the taste. Now I know what my problem is called!
    One example where I have actually been successful to a small extent is tea. I don’t order the samples of the super premium teas from my tea catalog. I could afford the sample but not the bulk, and I know that having had the sample I would probably be less satisfied with my merely premium tea.

  4. Paul Jaminet, a tea connisseur over at Perfect Health Diet is particularly concerned about toxins in Chinese (vice Taiwanese and Japanese) teas.

    Somewhere on his blog I recall seeing that he or his wife Shou-Ching steeps tea for a minute, then discards that water and steeps again, since any toxins in the tea would be present on the surface, and that would serve to eliminate much of them.

  5. YouTube videos are free, but the reputation (assuming you have any knowledge of this) or appearance of the artist(s), the quality of the video, etc., may affect your perception of the quality of the renditions.

  6. A wine of 30$ bottle it is not expensive wine.
    In wine is probably where it is more difficult to appreciate the extraordinary quality of a expensive one (300$ and much more). Usually they are not better tasting, just unique in flavour.

  7. When I was in high school, I had this experience with stereo equipment. My stereo system was great until I heard my friend’s older brother’s high-end stereo system. Then mine sounded like an AM radio.

  8. Seth, a question: Why are your comparisons always evaluative instead of merely descriptive? In other words, why do the differences between things always lead to the conclusion that one is BETTER than the other?

    I like bitter lager when it’s cold out and smooth lager when it’s hot. High-acidity, light-bodied coffee when I’m taking my time over it; full-bodied coffee when I’m knocking one back fast on my way to the subway. And sometimes one is just in the mood for different things.

    I think a side-by-side comparison has its uses, but if it’s used strictly to decide “what’s better” then (I suspect) a certain type of thing will always “win”—the type of thing with immediately obvious virtues, that wears its charm on the surface, as it were.

    The instinct to rank everything from best to worst tends to make complex things dull, in my opinion. If I may make a pretty big digression, I always feel this way when the Winter Olympics are on and the poor figure skaters have to go through hell. Figure skating is simply a far more complex thing than ski jumping or racing, and the attempt to rank performances in defiance of this fact reduces world class athletes to quivering choke machines every time.

    1. Paul, you ask “Why are your comparisons always evaluative instead of merely descriptive?” It isn’t “instead of”; it’s ” in addition to”. In my experience, side-by-side comparisons increase both: I am more conscious of the differences between two things (e.g., two teas or the same tea brewed two different ways) and I care about the difference more.

      Why is there is a change in desirability (one of the things being compared becomes more desirable, i.e., “better”) not just better knowledge of the differences? My evolutionary explanation is: So that the experience will cause action. You pay more for the “better” one or become more likely to buy it. You compare X and Y side by side, X becomes more pleasant, you buy more X. Resources flow to the makers of X. That’s the evolutionary point.

      In the bigger economy, not just trading, I agree with you. For example, professors often rank their students based on how smart they are. Smarter being a synonym for “better”. Not a good idea. As you say, a lot is lost by such a narrow descriptive system.

  9. Thanks for elaborating!

    One further question: Is the “better” item always more expensive, and is the more expensive one always “better”?

    1. Paul, the answers to your questions are no and no. When I brew tea, variations in brewing time and whether I wash the tea or not have made clear differences. The tea — and its price — remain the same. So far with green tea, I have only tried three varieties and within that tiny sample, yes, the more expensive is better. But there are so many green teas and some are so expensive I am sure that there is a price above which the more expensive teas are not noticeably better. In the big world of tea (not just green tea), my favorite teas have not been expensive. However, that was before I started learning from these side-by-side comparisons.

  10. In my experience, without side-by-side comparisons more expensive things usually do not taste better .I have a good memory for taste, so I am able to imagine foods side by side even if sampled at different times.I have long tried to avoid even a taste of premium foodstuffs when offered to me, if I know that I will not be able to afford them after the free taste.

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