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Thanks to Adam Clemens.

The Willat Effect: More Consequences

A month ago I bought three identical tea pots to compare tea side by side. I hoped to take advantage of the Willat Effect (side-by-side comparisons create connoisseurs) to become a tea connoisseur.

It worked. Side-by-side tea comparisons are fun, easy, and have taught me a lot. When I drink tea I notice more and like it more. I do about three comparisons per day. I blogged about the first results here. The most useful idea about these comparisons came from Carl Willat himself: Compare the same tea brewed differently (e.g., different amounts of tea, different brewing times, different water temperatures). Most of my comparisons vary amount of tea or brewing time.

These many  comparisons have had several effects: Continue reading “The Willat Effect: More Consequences”

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: Continue reading “More About The Willat Effect”

Willat Effect Experiments With Tea

The Willat Effect is the hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things. Your hedonic response to the things compared (e.g., two or more dark chocolates) expands in both directions. The “better” things become more pleasant and the “worse” things become less pleasant. In my experience, it’s a big change, easy to notice.

I discovered the Willat Effect when my friend Carl Willat offered me five different limoncellos side by side. Knowing that he likes it, his friends had given them to him. Perhaps three were homemade, two store-bought. I’d had plenty of limoncello before that, but always one version at a time. Within seconds of tasting the five versions side by side, I came to like two of them (with more complex flavors) more than the rest. One or two of them I started to dislike. When you put two similar things next to each other, of course you see their differences more clearly. What’s impressive is the hedonic change.

The Willat Effect supports my ideas about human evolution because it pushes people toward connoisseurship. (I predict it won’t occur with animals.) The fact that repeating elements are found in so many decorating schemes and patterns meant to be pretty (e.g., wallpapers, textile patterns, rugs, choreography) suggests that we get pleasure from putting similar things side by side — the very state that produces the Willat Effect. According to my theory of human evolution, connoisseurship evolved because it created demand for hard-to-make goods, which helped the most skilled artisans make a living. Carl’s limoncello tasting made me a mini-connoisseur of limoncello. I started buying it much more often and  bought more expensive brands, thus helping the best limoncello makers make a living. Connoisseurs turn surplus into innovation by giving the most skilled artisans more time and freedom to innovate.

Does the Willat Effect have practical value? Could it improve my life? Recently I decided to see if it could make me a green tea connoisseur. Ever since I discovered the Shangri-La Diet (calories without smell), I’d been drinking tea (smell without calories) almost daily but I was no connoisseur. Nor had I done many side-by-side comparisons. At home, I had always made one cup at a time.

In Beijing, where I am now, I can easily buy many green teas. I got three identical tea pots (SAMA SAG-08) and three cheap green teas. I drink tea every morning. Instead of brewing one pot, I started making two or three pots at the same time and comparing the results. I compared different teas and the same tea brewed different lengths of time (Carl’s idea).

I’ve been doing this about two weeks. The results so far:

1. The cheapest tea became undrinkable. I decided to never buy it again and not to drink the  rest of my purchase. I will use it for kombucha. Two of the three teas cost about twice the cheapest one. After a few side by side comparisons I liked the more expensive ones considerably more than the cheaper one. The two more expensive ones cost about the same but, weirdly, I liked the one that cost (slightly) more a little better than the one that cost less. (Tea is sold in bulk with no packaging or branding so the price I pay is closely related to what the grower was paid. The buyers taste it and decide what it’s worth.)

2. I decided to infuse the tea leaves only once. (Usual practice is to infuse green tea two or more times.)  The quality of later infusions was too low, I decided. Before this, I had found second and later infusions had been acceptable.

The Willat Effect is working, in other words. After a decade of drinking tea, my practices suddenly changed.  I will buy different teas and brew them differently. I will spend a lot more per cup since (a) each cup will require fresh tea, (b) I won’t buy the cheapest tea, and (c) I have become far more interested in green tea, partly because each cup tastes better, partly because I am curious if more expensive varieties taste better. When I bought the three varieties I have now I didn’t bother to learn their names; I identified them by price. In the future I will learn the names.

To get the Willat Effect, the things being compared must be quite similar. For example, comparing green tea with black tea does nothing. I have learned a methodological lesson: That tea is a great medium for studying this not only because it’s cheap but also because you can easily get similar tasting teas by brewing the same tea different lengths of time. I haven’t yet tried different water temperatures but that too might work.

I have done similar things before. I bought several versions of orange marmalade, did side-by-side tastings, and indeed became an orange marmalade connoisseur. After that I bought only expensive versions. After a few side-by-side comparisons of cheese that included expensive cheeses, I stopped buying cheap cheese. You could say I am still an orange marmalade and cheese connoisseur but this has no effect on my current life. Because I avoid sugar, I don’t eat orange marmalade. Because of all the butter I eat, I rarely eat cheese. My budding green tea connoisseurship, however, is making a  difference because I drink tea every day.

My posts about human evolution.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Tim Lundeen, J.C. and Ben Casnocha.

The Willat Effect: Side-by-Side Comparisons Create Connoisseurs

About ten years ago, while visiting my friend Carl Willat, he presented me with five versions of connoisseurs were important in human evolution because they helped support skilled artisans. Our design preference for repeated elements (e.g., wallpaper, textiles) evolved so that we would put similar things side by side. Continue reading “The Willat Effect: Side-by-Side Comparisons Create Connoisseurs”

Unofficial Beer Tasting Winner: Uncommon Brewers

Last night I went to a beer tasting in San Francisco. I didn’t taste all the beers but of the 15-odd I did taste the best were by Uncommon Brewers — especially their Siamese Twin (“the floral notes of lemongrass and sharper bite of kaffir lime blend with the deep malt”) and Baltic Porter (“whole licorice root and star anise”).

Five or six years ago I went to a sake-tasting event in San Francisco called “The Joy of Sake”. About 140 sakes. In a few hours I became such a sake connoisseur that the sake I could afford  — and used to buy regularly — I now despised. The only sake I now liked was so expensive ($80/bottle) that I never bought another bottle of sake.


Amy Winehouse and Nassim Taleb

Will Amy Winehouse — who won five Grammys last night — help or hurt the music industry? A few years ago, I went to a tasting event called The Joy of Sake. There were about 100 of the best sakes from Japan. A pre-event talk for retailers discussed the decline of sake in Japan. (Soju is cool; sake is old-fashioned.) That was the reason for the show. I loved tasting 30-odd high-quality sakes but the overall effect on me was the opposite of what the promoters wanted. I quickly became a connoisseur. I no longer liked the cheap stuff — ugh! But the stuff I did like was too expensive. I stopped buying sake.

Before last night I had heard of Amy Winehouse and I had heard Rehab, but hadn’t put the two together. Her Grammy performance blew me away. I watched a bunch of YouTubes of her. Back at the Grammys, I listened to an orchestra play Rhapsody in Blue. I used to like it; now it sounded awful. I listened to a few more group performances; they too sounded bad. Just as The Joy of Sake had made me no longer enjoy cheap sake, listening to a lot of Amy Winehouse had made me no longer enjoy “average” music — music where several individual performances are combined.

I thought of The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. Taleb defined Mediocristan as situations where no one datum can have a big effect on the result. The average height of 100 people, for example. In Extremistan, by contrast, a single datum can make a big difference. The average wealth of 100 people, for example — one person can have much more money than the other 99 put together. Orchestras are Mediocristan, I realized; individual singers are Extremistan. In art, emotional impact is everything. Extremistan allows really big impact; Mediocristan does not. Maybe this is why classical music is dying.

I felt like throwing away half my CDs. I could use the space. Thanks, Amy!