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.