Often, I, like many others presumably, have been asking myself what it really means to ‘like’ something, what it means to enjoy something and what influences our tastes and how much our surroundings account for this influence.
Doing research on this topic I came across a book by American author, Tom Vanderbilt, called ‘You May Also Like’. Here he poses these same questions. Vanderbilt has given interviews in The Atlantic in regards to this topic and I would like to summarize the answers he gave to these fascinating questions.
Vanderbilt assumes that food is likely to be the first item we shaped our preferences for. Since once you have more than one kind of food available to you, you already face a choice you have to make. This abundance of choice in the food industry has only increased, he mentions, referring to statistics on the food-related decisions we face, by a Scientist named Brian Wansink, which number around 200 each day.
He starts by putting taste as just a way of “filtering the world”.
When, for example the availability of the variety of foods increases, we face the dilemma of choice. We ask ourselves “What do I decide to even look for, now that I have everything available to me?”.
Taste as a “form of social learning”.
Secondly, he defines taste as a “form of social learning”.
Since you gain knowledge about your environment, e.g. food, by watching your neighbor consume something. Once you notice that this other person does not face negative consequences from certain foods, you might think it seems acceptable to enjoy these meals as well.
As society became more complex, you start having power dynamics which result in making certain tastes more prestigious. We began to consume based on the social status of others who consumed it. Although Vanderbilt emphasized that taste is always a “mixture” of exposure, culture and a person’s personality. And that these aren’t particularly static, since what we like is subject to change.
“We always reinvent ourselves a little.”
Vanderbilt believes that people always strive for improvement. “We always reinvent ourselves a little.” What we eat is based on what we think is best for ourselves, or related to cultures we think are ideal.
This makes guilty pleasures, something that has existed for a long time, a very complicated dynamic but he believes that shaming people’s pleasures has mostly been used culturally as a way to try to shape our behaviors.
The American author concludes that “guilty pleasures” have mostly been used to guide the behavior of women in particular, arguing how common it was to shame girls for having read certain novels. And that this focus on women’s guilty pleasures is still alive today, using the argument that stock photo sites tend to use photographs of women in particular when looking up guilty pleasures.
But guilty pleasures might also be part of us reflecting our cultural anxiety about the urge of having to be “better people”. We might convince ourselves of being “good”, by buying books but never reading them for example, to in tern convince others of our own value.
Tastes as they are formed by tools.
What people like is also very much influenced by how well-versed they are in the topic at hand. The more you think about something, and the more tools you have to unpack it, the more ways you have into liking something. This stands in contrast to people who are maybe less knowledgeable of the topic at hand, who might go off of their gut feelings.
As with a foreign language the more we hear something, the more we begin to know what to listen for, the more we actually begin to like it. The language starts to sound less like pure noise as we become familiar with it.
Once we feel good about our fluency, we transfer some of that good feeling onto the language itself.
How categories shape our mind.
Vanderbilt notes, that above all, how we view certain things is often defined by the language we use, more precisely, how we define categories, with which we filter information about the world. He gives the example of music, in music we will be attracted to things because of the genre they fit in, but when you actually analyse these songs, you might find more of a rainbow effect. “I like this song. This song is an R&B song.”, you might say, but if one actually put it on a musical map, it might technically be closer to rock than most of the other R&B songs.
How do we like things.
Vanderbilt also poses that there are a number of ways of ‘liking’ things.One, he defines, as being rooted in our hedonistic sweet spot and a second way of developing tastes is based more in analytical thinking and, like many other things, taste can also be contextual.
An important part of what influences our judgement is the internet, although this impact is rather ambiguous. A high rating left by other people on sites for functional objects, like remotes for example, might help you make decisions, whereas comments under creative works, like books, might make, making decisions harder. Your taste will be influenced by the positive and negative responses left on these sites.
But of course, another factor in what makes us like things, is the social-psychological phenomenon of the mere-exposure effect, ergo the familiarity we have with certain interests since, the author adds, this is “easier for the brain” but on the other hand, we are always looking for novelty, which creates an interesting conflict.
One of the most intriguing conclusions Vanderbilt has is that there’s not much we should “a priori” dislike, much of what we detest is caused by us filtering out our surroundings’ stimuli and us “learning to deal” with the world.
In the end, what I think we can learn from Vanderbilt, is something that most people already know, being that, finding your tastes is a “good strategy for getting more out of life”.