Hedonic Contrast


One particularly remarkable result of my experiment with consuming purely Soylent for two months was the way my view of ‘normal’ food changed during that period of time. In scientific lingo: “hedonic contrast.” The term “hedonic” refers to the philosophical school of thought called Hedonism in ancient Greece that argues (to grossly oversimplify) that pleasure is the primary or most important intrinsic good. Hedonic contrast plays with our perceptions to make something seem better or worse than it otherwise would by anchoring our experience to something else. A plain bagel won’t taste spectacular next to a cinnamon roll hot out of the oven, but might taste pretty great when compared to a stale loaf of bread. The bagel is the same in either case, but how it contrasts to the other stimuli makes all the difference. Check out the 2 minute video below for a better understanding of the concept and interesting experiment that illustrates the point. As it turns out, the hedonic contrast of my experiment of consuming Soylent made even mediocre food taste much better than it should…


Probably within the first two weeks, my perception of the sight and smell of ‘normal’ food went from one of  casual acknowledgement of its existence to one of hyper-alertness. You might think “well, that tends to happen when one becomes hungry” (a problem I didn’t really have while consuming Soylent). But what was unique about the experience with Soylent was that it wasn’t the calorie-rich foods that we all tend to want when we are hungry. In this case it was even the most mundane of foods that generated a new-found appreciation in my perception of them.

The transition back to consuming ‘normal’ food again temporarily benefited from a spike in hedonic contrast. Because let me tell you, those first few meals out were quite an experience – despite being largely a repeat of identical foods and situations I had been in before. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. After about two weeks of ‘normal’ food again, the comparative spike in appreciation in food has returned to previous levels. It hasn’t faded entirely, but for the most part I experience food in much the same way that I had well before I experimented with Soylent.

The most important lesson I learned from this experience was the power of hedonic contrast in shaping perception and altering motivations. While I have little control over how my body and mind irrationally react to comparative changes and contrasts, the knowledge and awareness that I am affected is a powerful tool by itself. As I consider the benefits Soylent had for me in the short amount of time I consumed it, being able to make the choice again to try it for another period of time could predictably result in the same hedonic contrast response. It certainly seems worth another shot…

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