About ten years ago, while visiting my friend Carl Willat, he presented me with five versions of limoncello (an Italian lemon liqueur) side by side in shot glasses. Two were store-bought, the rest homemade, if I remember correctly. I tried them one by one. I had had limoncello many times but never different versions side by side. It was easy to notice differences between them. Obviously. What surprised me was an hedonic reaction: I thought two of them (with more complex flavors) were wonderful and one (store-bought) was awful. Both reactions (wonderful and awful) were stronger than usual. In a small way, I’d become a connoisseur. After that, I was happy to buy expensive limoncello (e.g., $26). I no longer bought cheap limoncello ($18). I call the hedonic changes produced by side-by-side comparisons the Willat Effect. Carl became a connoisseur of Italian hand-painted tableware due to side by side comparisons. I believe 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.
I mentioned a downside of the Willat Effect a few posts ago:
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.
A reader named James Bailey commented:
And you still go to tastings?? It seems like ignorance is bliss here, better to preserve your ability to enjoy cheap things.
Yes, I still go to tastings. The sake tasting was the only one that had that effect. Mostly they have no effect because the samples vary too much. For example, I’ve been to many wine tastings but haven’t become much of a wine connoisseur. The many wines at the tastings were all over the place. If I want to get the effect, I usually have to do it myself: buy several versions of a product and try them side by side. I recently did this for whiskey. When I go back to Beijing maybe I’ll do it for some sort of tea.
When I do it myself I control the price range and limit the high end to what I can afford. I didn’t buy $80 whiskeys, for example, although many were available. So the effect makes me enjoy stuff at the upper end of what I’ll pay. When I became an assistant professor, I thought it would be fun to enjoy fine art (e.g., paintings) more. I attended several art history classes. They had no effect — I was bored. Side-by-side comparisons, in contrast, actually work and, as Carl illustrated, are easily shared. And they are consumerist and artisanal at the same time.