The Complex Psychology of Why People Like Things
I spoke with Vanderbilt about how what we like is influenced by both culture and human nature, how being able to analyze things helps us like them more, and how the Internet changes the game. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Vanderbilt: Taste is just a way of filtering the world, of ordering information. I use Michael Pollan’s phrase, [from] The Omnivore’s Dilemma—when humans do have this capacity to eat everything, how do you decide? I felt like the sheer availability of cultural choices is similar. We all face this new kind of dilemma of how to figure out what we like when the entirety of recorded music, more or less, is available on your phone within seconds. What do I decide to even look for now that I have everything available to me?
Beck: Do you think food was the first thing that people developed and shaped preferences for?
Vanderbilt: I would think so, because we’re talking about sheer survival here. And then the very minute you have more than one food available you suddenly have a choice. [Cornell behavioral scientist] Brian Wansink has this great statistic that nowadays in current society we face something like 200 food decisions a day.
I think in early society the public probably tapped into these social mechanisms that are hugely important in taste. Taste is just another form of social learning. You saw your neighbor consume something, you saw that he didn’t die, so you decided that would be a pretty good thing to eat too. Then as society became more complex, you start to have prestige models of, well, not only did he like that food, he’s the most important person in the village, so of course I should really check it out. More began to be attached to those choices than sheer functionality.
Vanderbilt: I think a lot of people are, in many ways, always striving for improvement. You want to eat the food that you think is best for you; you want to consume the culture that you think is best for you. That depends on who you are, of course.
Just to segue a little bit to the concept of the guilty pleasure—this is a very interesting and complicated dynamic. I do think it has been used culturally as kind of a cudgel to try to shape people’s behavior and influence them and rein them in. You can find intimations going back to the emergence of the novel, for example, that the novel was a guilty pleasure enjoyed largely by women. I do think there has been this tendency to try to reign in guilty pleasure behavior when it comes to women. As a weird example here, if you go to a stock photo site like Shutterstock or something like that and type in the words “guilty pleasure,” what you will see is a page of women basically putting chocolate into their mouths.
Vanderbilt: Yeah, this is a question I grappled with. If you’re a connoisseur of chocolate and you know the entire range of the world’s chocolate available to you, does that lead to a greater pleasure or are you always sort of haunted by the notion that there might be something better out there? Whereas if a Hershey bar—and I’m being neutral about Hershey here—is the entirety of your chocolate knowledge, it’s hard to see the chance for dissatisfaction there.
I’m not trying to argue that it’s good to be a philistine or something. The more you can think about something, and the more tools you have to unpack it, you definitely open more ways into liking something. Obviously we should not just stop with our gut reaction and say “I don’t like this.” If we did that, we would never get to a lot of the things we end up liking.
Vanderbilt: Absolutely. We like to sort things into categories to help us filter information more efficiently about the world. The example I like that’s been used in talking about what’s called categorical perception is: If you look at a rainbow, we read it as bands of color rather than this spectrum that smoothly evolves from one color to the next. Many things are the same way. In music we will discount things out of hand or be attracted to things because of the genre they fit in. But when you actually mathematically analyze that music, you might find something similar to that rainbow effect. You say, “This song by this artist, that’s an R&B song.” Well if you actually put it on a map, it might be closer, musically, to rock than most of the other R&B songs, yet it gets classified within R&B. When we classify something I think all those things tend to [seem] more like one another than they really are.
Beck: Thanks to the Internet, not only do we have easier, cheaper access to the stuff, but we get to hear everybody’s opinions about all the stuff. Do you think that has changed what people like and why they like it?
Vanderbilt: For certain things, it’s great. Just take Amazon.com. If you’re looking for, let’s say, a remote control for your television, you can pretty much intuit right away what is the best remote control by sheer aggregation of star ratings. Because the remote control is a pretty functional object, people aren’t going to have a lot of quirky personal preferences on there.
When you go to something like a novel, it’s harder to arrive at that same robust conclusion, because you’re going to start to read comments like “I just couldn’t relate to the main character,” and that is not an empirical statement. We don’t know who that reviewer was that said that, or whether we can relate to them. So what you’re getting there are potentially unwise crowds.
Vanderbilt: This goes back into the categorization thing because often these films that are the most polarizing on Netflix are genre-bending. You might suspect that part of what’s going on is that people are feeling a bit flummoxed. And often if you read down through the comment stream of something like Big Lebowski or even Napoleon Dynamite, people are saying “When this first came out I didn’t quite know what to make of it,” and over time they began to have a new appreciation.
As Netflix told me, there’s a continuum of predictive usefulness within films. They said something like The Shawshank Redemption, which was so liked and kind of liked for a very general reason, didn’t really help provide strong recommendations for other things. Whereas the people who really like Napoleon Dynamite probably like a number of other similar hard to classify things. This is what they’re always dealing with.
At Pandora I was told that something like the song “We Are Young” by the band fun., it was kind of sitting there on Pandora for a while as an indie pop song liked by a number of people who like other things in that genre. Not particularly hugely successful; then it was featured in Glee. So they had a lot of Glee fans coming to Pandora to listen to fun.
Vanderbilt: Our liking for something is not a singular proposition. There are a number of ways into that liking. Some things might just hit kind of a hedonic sweet spot that is a bit of a weakness in us, that forces us to kind of drop our more analytical thinking. Quality doesn’t sit out there independently in the world. This sounds a little bit like a flaw in our reasoning, but as I mention in the book, I think this can actually be a good strategy for getting more out of life.
Vanderbilt: I think we always lean toward familiarity for some of the reasons we’ve already discussed. Number one, it’s efficiency. It’s just easier for the brain. If you have an apple tree right in front of you, should you just pick an apple and get your sustenance or should you range a little bit further and try to find something else, expending energy for something that might not be out there? Most of us would just go with the apple. Should I go on Spotify right now and find out what the “hottest” indie rock bands are right at this moment or should I just listen to ones that I already know?
On the other hand there’s a lot of ways in which we’re also primed to look for novelty, with a caveat that it depends on our personalities. Why do we become tired of [certain] foods and want something different? I think the theory is there’s this internal regulatory thermostat there that forces us, after a while, to become tired of the same thing and look for something new because it is good to have a wide source of different nutritional sources. So it’s not quite the same thing going on with our interest in art, but you can almost imagine a metaphorical similarity there.
Beck: Can we just do a quick lightning round of what’s up with certain weird kinds of liking things?
Beck: Okay. Number one: What’s up with hate-watching?
Vanderbilt: In the good old days of aesthetic philosophy, you liked the things that were good and beautiful and brought pleasure. I think in today’s more complicated consumption world, this is a thing. What are you hating? Are you hating yourself for watching or are you hating certain aspects of the production even as you enjoy other things? I’d like to see from a neurological point of view just what the pathways and processes involved there are. It’s been shown that when looking at things that one dislikes, a lot of the same brain areas are activated that are involved with liking and love even. This might be a nice analogy to our liking. It can be like a storm system sort of hovering right on the edge that really might go one way or the other, but at the moment it’s quite muddled. All we know there’s sort of a powerful feeling and there’s a lot of crackling.
I don’t think if you really truly hated something that you would subject yourself to it. I think there has to be a pleasure there, but it’s just perhaps…
Beck: Like righteous anger or something?
Vanderbilt: Yeah. You can even perhaps have a kind of a pleasure that emerges from your own sense of moral superiority.
Beck: So what’s up with liking things ironically?
Vanderbilt: I think there’s much more artifice there. Versus something like camp which does really involve genuine emotion.
Vanderbilt: I’m not actually sure I can delineate that. How would you think about liking something ironically?
Beck: I think it’s silly to try to protect yourself from saying you like something that’s not cool by saying it’s just ironic.
Vanderbilt: I’m a Gen X-er so, you know? Irony was one of our hallmarks, and I guess there’s an argument that it emerged in response to some kind of strong sense that we were we were being marketed to, and we needed to come up with a protective stance or something. Whereas perhaps when liking something that’s so bad it’s good, you’re opening up more, putting yourself on the line, allowing the possibility that you may be compromising what you think your own tastes are by being open to this potential experience. Once you open yourself to the idea that that something is so bad it’s good, perhaps it actually is just good.
Beck: Do you think that a lot of what makes up liking something is just being willing to spend time with it?
Vanderbilt: Absolutely, yeah. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s really little we should a priori dislike. We do a lot of that just to filter out the world and we just don’t even have the time to explore those options. This is Appreciation 101, just repeated exposure. Spending time with it, learning to know what to look for, what to listen for, what flavor notes to try to seek out.
I went into this with certain food dislikes that I thought were really based more in biology, like fennel. But then I had a couple of fennel dishes prepared the right way, and now I like fennel. It’s still the same fennel; I am the person who has changed. There’s any number of things that I think we can go through that same experience with.
On – 27 Apr, 2017 By TechCrunch