The Complex Psychology of Why People Like Things

How do you account for taste?

Lisa Maree Williams / Getty

In the time of the Facebook thumbs up, what does it mean to “like” something? What is it that makes humans decide they prefer one thing over another, so that you click replay on one song all day and cover your ears whenever you hear another in public? And how do Netflix and Spotify and other recommendation engines seem to know your taste as well or better than you do sometimes?

What determines people’s preferences is a fuzzy, hard-to-pin-down process, but Tom Vanderbilt takes a stab at it in his new book, You May Also Like. He examines the broad collection of likes and dislikes that make up “taste,” and how they come to be. Sometimes, people just prefer the familiar. Sometimes they like what their friends like. Sometimes they pretend to like movies they never really watch or music they don’t actually listen to. A lot of the time, they can’t say why they like something, they just know that they do.

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.

Julie Beck: I'm going to start really broad. What’s the point of liking anything? Why do humans as a species have preferences for things in the first place?

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.

There’s no silver bullet theory for explaining anyone's taste. It's always a mixture of exposure, of culture, of a person's personality. And none of these are particularly static or fixed. The nice thing about tastes is that they are subject to change. We can kind of always be reinventing them and reinventing ourselves a little bit.

Beck: Sometimes the things that we say we like and the things that we actually like in our secret hearts don't match up. Is that a matter of lying to ourselves?  I was thinking of Netflix specifically; you mentioned in the book that people never watch the foreign movies they say they're going to watch.

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.

So that's kind of the social aspect. And then for the personal aspect, maybe we're just reflecting that cultural anxiety and trying to be those people that we're supposed to be, those better people. The key to deceiving others is the ability to deceive yourself. That helps the lie. So I create these playlists and reading lists, and I orchestrate my bookshelves very carefully to have nothing but the finest tomes. How many of those I've actually read is another question.

Beck: I’m wondering how much of liking something is a feeling versus how much of it is thinking about the thing or intellectualizing the thing, or finding a language to describe the thing, like with wine connoisseurs.

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.

I think often we really are lacking the language, and the ways to frame it. If you look at films like Blade Runner or The Big Lebowski, when these films came out they were box office disasters. I think part of that was a categorization thing—not knowing how to think about it in the right way. Blade Runner didn't really match up with the existing tropes of science fiction, Big Lebowski was just kind of strange.

Beck: So it's easier to like things if we're able to fit them into some kind of label or category that we already understand and if it's too new, too different, than it's more baffling.

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.

There’s this processing fluency argument out of psychology that comes up too, which I really subscribe to quite heartily. As with a foreign language the more we hear something, the more we begin to know what to listen for, the more familiar it becomes, the more we actually begin to like it. The less it sounds like pure noise. The argument is that what we're really doing is beginning to become fluent [in understanding that thing]. We feel good about our fluency and we almost transfer some of that good feeling onto the thing itself. You may like French more because you can speak it, but what you might really like is your ability to speak French.

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 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.

Beck: So with this wisdom or lack thereof of crowds, you mention something with regard to Netflix I thought was really interesting: the “Napoleon Dynamite problem.” I guess that is a movie where people's tastes were not what the algorithm would expect, or it was really polarizing. How did that movie muck up the works, and does it say anything about how predictable people's preferences can be?

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.

That was fine but then what do you play them next? Do you want to take them into this indie pop space? Or do you want something more like a Glee space? So it is funny how one product can be viewed so differently either over time or by different demographics. This really is the ultimate elusiveness of taste, I think. If it were purely subjective, we could never agree about anything. And if were purely objective,  we wouldn't need human interaction. Netflix could just come out with a very strong algorithm that just measured the quality of a movie the way a Geiger counter measures radiation. So it’s this weird mix of the subjective and the objective that will always leave it, by definition, murky.

Beck: One thing I thought was really interesting is how we forgive the things that we love for their flaws. So once you've decided you like something, it doesn't really matter as much if it's “good” or “bad.” Like, I like fantasy novels so even if the fantasy novel is not super well-written, I might still like it. But you might not. Why do you think that this happens?

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.

If you look at some of these rating sites [for beer], they have this phrase “lawnmower beer,” which I kind of like. It’s like, it's not the best beer ever but after you've just mowed the lawn, you're hot, you're thirsty, it's going to taste pretty good. That’s just another example of how contextual taste can be. Is this a great restaurant? No, but it is a good restaurant for being in the Port Authority bus station.

Beck: This gets into the tension of people wanting both novelty and familiarity. What always happens to me is I hear a new song and I love it, but then I wish that there were 100 more songs that are both exactly like it and totally different. Is there one that we prefer between novelty and familiarity? How do we reconcile those desires?

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?

Vanderbilt: Sure, yeah.

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.

Beck: Well that was going to be my last lightning round, if you want to compare—what's up with things that are so bad they're good?

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.