The Willat Effect - hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things

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After just having read Seth Roberts' blog post about The Willat Effect (the hedonic change caused by side-by-side comparison of similar things), it was interesting to see Xeni's post about the side-by-side comparison of video shot with the iPhone 4S vs the Canon 5d MKII.

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.

The Willat Effect


  1. Really? Being an informed consumer is the “Willat Effect”? Who knew? This seems a little overanalyzed.

    1. I think the idea is that your actual perception of things changes once you have something to compare it to.  He might have liked a particular limoncello with nothing to compare it to, but given the opportunity to try four others next to it, he actually began to dislike it, which would be a step beyond preferring the others to it. 
      I used to enjoy a crap bottle of wine, but now that I’m a *connoisseur,* the taste of the exact same wine I used to like tastes bad to me. 

      1. But I think if this were to truly qualify as evolution, you’d have to be able to pass that wine ponce gene down to your offspring, right?

        1. Bah, a wine ponce I am not; I have graduated from boxed wine to the finery of Charles Shaw and whatever else Trader Joes can give me for under six bucks, though.

    2. I never thought of it that way. He seems to think too highly of his own opinions. 

      Does he sit with  his friends and yell at the baseball game on the big screen and then call themselves Sport’s Casters?

  2. Perhaps in line with this idea, I always find it interesting how much the packaging of the same product placed side-by-side (on a store shelf, for instance) influences my perception of the quality of things.  You can put junk limoncello in a bottle like the one on the left, and I’ll assume it’s higher quality than the rest, without even looking at labels, ingredients, etc.  

    1. You can put junk limoncello in a bottle like the one on the left, and I’ll assume it’s higher quality than the rest, without even looking at labels, ingredients, etc.

      You can put limoncello in any bottle you want and it will still taste like furniture polish.

  3. I like the idea, but question Mr. Robert’s scientific methods.  It seems he was responsible for preparing his own samples and describes an items “expense” more than any quality of taste, flavor, color, etc.  Double blind tests and limoncello for all.

        1.  I was more referring to his ideas on human evolution, which are “the worst kind of popular tripe”, and are most definitely not testable.

  4. It’s hard to tell exactly what the effect is supposed to be.  Anyone who’s kept pets can confirm that animals do have hedonic changes, if we must use the term, getting used to things like higher quality foods and sometimes insisting on them.  I’m skeptical they wouldn’t learn this faster by having choices presented closer in time, if that what the claim is.

  5. I used to sell televisions and this effect is staggering. In the electronics store- side by side you can see the difference. but once you get the television home nobody notices those differences. Maybe not the cheapest TV, but the $5K version vs the $2500 doesn’t hardly make a difference (once you’re not in the store anymore)If you haven’t watched this TED lecture, much of it relates to this exact effect you’re talking about here. couple things,#1 Never disclose the prices of what you’re comparing for accurate results.#2 Just pretending something is worth more will convince you it’s better

    1. Oh, I thought stores would detune the models that they weren’t interested in selling so that the one they wanted to push looked great. It’s why I never look at the model in a store, but rather just look at the specs and the reviews from people who have already bought the thing.

  6. So we evolved a pleasure for organizing like things because it helps *other* people?  I’m thinking he’s not clear on how evolution works.

  7. That’s a nice thought, but people only recently started seeking out artisans for custom-made items.  At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, what people wanted was sameness and consistency.

    I don’t think there’s anything supernatural or subconscious about preferring something that’s better to something that’s worse.  As they say, why have hamburger when you can have steak?  And why have a moldy tuna sandwich when you can have hamburger?

  8. Is this a double-blind  kinda thing or is Seth sittin round with his buddies, gassing about what he should expect from various kinds o’ lemon alcohol liqueurs?  Or is it that give the choice we monkeys would rather eat chocolate that shit?

    1. I’m thinking that it’s Seth sittin round with his buddies, gassing about what he should expect from various kinds o’ lemon alcohol liqueurs, after enjoying copious amounts of said lemon alcohol liqueurs.

  9. It does seem to be a safe bet that animals do not engage in connoisseurship.  Squirrel artisans tend to last less than a week around these parts, though I don’t know if that’s due to poor business or running in front of cars.

  10. I will say that my 3 year old absolutely loves putting like things together; not like “it is fun for him” or “it’s like a game” but like “it gives him a buzz to sort small objects”, especially if they’re not identical (ie. all cars in this pile, all trains in this pile – he would do that all day). 

    It’s easy to imagine an innate pleasure in simply having like objects together, and I imagine it’d likely be hard to sort out different effects when considering this.

    1. Not only that… but seriously you predict it won’t happen for animals? then *who* will it happen for?  Plants?  seriously I stopped reading at that point.  

    2. Here here. This was the biggest “Whu?” of the whole text-block. To be fair, I didn’t read his whole dissertation on human evolution (presumably linked above) but he seems to be commenting more on Social Darwinism than human evolution – I’m sure connoisseurship plays at least some role in the latter as well.

  11. I’ve seen this at garlic festivals at which I’m selling lots of the stinking rose.  People sample raw garlic of different varieties all day long. The first timers are usually overwhelmed by the choices, but there are those that really pick up on the nuance and will buy accordingly.  

  12. In ancient times, when the modems I and my friends used to connected to bulletin boards transitioned from 300 baud to 1200 and then 2400, I formulated the following rule:

    The slowest acceptable modem speed is the fastest you’ve ever used for more than a few minutes.  Previously “good enough” modems suddenly become painful and irritating.

    The same thing applies to monitor sizes.

  13. I agree with most of you. The writer only mentions “taste” as his quantifying perception. 

    I recently stood in the same aisle, but looking at tequila. I was shocked at how some manufacturers made enormously thick glassed bottles to “trick” my reasonable perception as to which one was bigger. I studied all the other bottles’ shapes and thicknesses and they all had the exact same fluid content.

    Perception is actually a form of instinct marketing that war rooms have been waging huge battles against for years. 

    This writer does not address product shape, added color, added texture (“syrupness”), of if the product was even organic/natural/healthier. 

    Yes, blind taste test. But how do you cleanse the palette after drinking something lemony?

  14. This might explain collectors – they just like to see like things on the shelf, be it antique beer cans, or mint in box action figures. The dark side of this is horders. Connoisseurs that don’t know how to “turn off the pretty”.

  15. Apparently the author is referring to some sort of sociological “evolution”, rather than biological evolution.

    Seems like a misleading choice of wording.  But what else would you expect from the soft sciences?

  16. He does have it a little backwards, it is the hard-to-make goods and the benefits they bestow that caused evolution, not the other way around. If you’re wired to put like things together and you can create a hierarchy of quality you can decide who makes the best spearhead (or whatever) which would allow you to take down more/bigger animals which would give you the energy you need to procreate etc. Chimps make “tools,” and might find one that works really well for a task but they don’t (as far as I know) seem too concerned with collecting tools and deciding which is the best quality.

  17. Intentionally training yourself to dislike things you are perfectly happy with, in order to pay more for the ones you now prefer, because you can no longer tolerate the others, even though a few weeks previously you couldn’t tell the difference…

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