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 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.

8 Replies to “The Willat Effect: Side-by-Side Comparisons Create Connoisseurs”

  1. Amusement. I use the Willat Effect to test governments. (It’s depressing, I don’t recommend it if you don’t have to.)

    Of course the most important connoisseurship is of things you produce. Everyone should do side-by-side comparisons of parenting, for example.

    I’d like to be a blog connoisseur but it’s hard to find directly comparable blog posts by different people.

  2. I’m not sure that it requires side-by-side comparisons. For example, I remember the day I became a real cook. I used to buy canned chow mein, heat it, and pour it over chow mein noodles which had just come tumbling fresh out of the bag, and we thought that was decent home-cooking. Then, for some reason that day, I decided to taste supper. Really taste by focusing on the flavor. There was an underlying metallic tone, and that’s when I realized that I’d never be able to buy canned chow mein again. I have repeated this experience multiple times with different foods, and smells, and music.

    What puzzles me is why I start caring about certain categories. I don’t care about specific plants, for example, although we often visit botanical gardens, and I can easily spend half an hour sniffing roses and irises when they’re in bloom. But I’ll never write down the names of the plants.

    On the other hand, I agree that once you start caring about a particular category, the best way to sharpen your selection criteria is via side-by-side comparisons.

    And for some categories, I can play a game where an uninteresting category becomes interesting for a few hours. It’s usually when going to some place which interests somebody else and I’m just tagging along. I ask myself, ‘What are the 3 most interesting things here?’ or ‘What seems to be the most bizarre thing here?’ or ‘What did somebody else craft that makes me envious and I wish I had that skill?’

  3. Who is Willat? I think of the Willat-Spadina Witch House, designed and built by Harry Oliver on the Willat Studios cine lot back in the 1920’s. I visualized the Willat Effect as side-by-size comparisons of Witch-House architecture. Am I nutz?

  4. There are two parts (i) a distate for the lesser varieties and (ii) a knowledge about what constitutes a good variety.

    For the first part.- Barry Schwartz in “The paradox of choice” popularized an idea that has been tested experimentally many times: when you compare several options side by side, each of the option’s value is decreased. That explains why now for you cheap limoncello fell beyond the level of what you would consider acceptable.

    For the second part.- The fact that now you learned about what makes differences are between different limoncelli, well, would not be possible without comparing them.

    All the best,


  5. In the world of programming, it’s very possible to achieve this effect by side-by-side comparison of two versions of the same code (differently formatted, with different variable namings etc.).

    I think it’s actually where the desire for clean and beautiful code comes from.

    Probably, I could derive much more pleasure out of programming if I will always code in a side-by-side setup (or at least look at previuos versions often enough).

    General purpose text editing tool with a possibility like this would be really great for bloggers and other writers, don’t you think?

  6. The experience is colored by order. Side by side can also happen in the range of days and is probably easier to practice in the long run.

Comments are closed.