I picked up You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice by Tom Vanderbilt solely because of his excellent book – Traffic.
My choice to pick the book up could have been an anecdote in the actual book – “why did I choose to read that book when the topic didn’t suit my usual reading habits?”
Taste is one of those highly abstract topics that gets really weird and really “meta” – very quickly. But it’s also a topic that drives our economy – and our lives. Arguably, our very identity nowadays is just a bundles of tastes.
Tom Vanderbilt addressed odd and counter-intuitive concepts in Traffic – and did so again in You May Also Like. Once I got into it, the book was a fascinating read – providing plenty of “hey sweetie, you won’t believe this” factoids, anecdotes and ideas.
What I Liked
The book was fascinating and covered a complicated topic well.
There were plenty of entertaining examples and anecdotes to make meta-concepts tangible.
The takeaways section at the end was a great idea. I wish more nonfiction books did that.
The topic was complex but also practical for everyday life. I’ve used the pleasure of anticipation / pleasure of memory on every restaurant and event choice this month.
What I Did Not Like
The book is slow to really get going. It took me a couple more weeks than anticipated because it took me a while to really get immersed in the book.
He gets into the weeds a bit with both art and music. In the author’s defense – both those topics require a bit of background before explaining, but they were dense nonetheless.
The book needed more illustrations and matrices. I hand drew several for myself to make sense of a concept – and I would have loved to have seen them in the book.
What I Learned
Ecological Valence theory explains taste as things associated with good experiences
But any determinism in taste removes the authenticity from choice – choice and taste
When choosing between favorites or something new – decide when you want the pleasure. Favorites bring pleasure of anticipation. Something new brings pleasure after with the memory. You won’t remember eating your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant, but you will anticipate it. You won’t anticipate trying the new dish at a new restaurant, but you will remember it.
The whole chapter on online reviews shows the multitude of crazy psychological and economic biases that go into online reviewing. It has toppled the single informed critical voice but with it taste has shattered into a thousand pieces. We have to shift through those shards to make meaning of other people’s attempts to say what meant something to them. Wow.
Taste is a space on a graph. You can predict to near certainty the taste of someone if you know who they read and hangout with.
Taste in music is an infallible guide to someone’s general taste – that’s why it’s often the first question someone will ask to get to know someone.
Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” is especially evident in music and music categorization. The closer people are to each other socially, the more pronounced taste differences become.
Humans navigate taste in music (and food) with genre. And genre is difficult for computers to understand since it’s not data driven at all. Humans still have to define genre.
The most fundamental factor in liking a song is whether you have heard it before. Exposure, as with food, is key: the more you hear something, the more you will like it (with a few exceptions).
Memory is like a radio station that only plays what you want to hear. When thinking about tastes of the past – you only remember the good stuff or really bad stuff. Over time, your memory can almost freeze out new (potentially good) experiences because…you’re good and don’t have the time to spend risking bad experiences. Think about the classic middle aged couple choosing their one concert for the year.
Your brain is a pattern completing machine. If you are feeling good (or bad) about the world, the brain will try to complete the pattern of things that for you are associated with pleasantness (or unpleasantness). This is why we head to museums, not just to look at things that have been recognized as art, but to actually see them. Outside of the museum – your brain pattern matches art differently – like a painting with no frame.
We live our lives in a perpetual “end of history” illusion which is that “we have finally become the person that we will be for the rest of our lives.” In one experiment, researchers found that people were willing to pay more money to see their favorite band perform ten years from now that they were willing to pay to see their favorite band from ten years ago play now. In 20 years, we will look back and harshly judge our current taste.
To truly like something, we need a frame of reference. That’s why some things can truly be ahead of their time. The Sydney Opera House was despised – now it’s a national symbol. It’s the same with music, art and food. We need a frame of reference before we can develop fluency which can turn to taste.
Taste is a perpetual motion machine, especially aspects of taste that convey conformity or distinction.
Taste forecasters look for “rogue waves” in culture that they can pile onto. Once a rogue wave has backing – it can become self-fulfilling. This creates a spiky pattern that carries over to everything – including baby names.
In a world of more information (ie, the Internet) – taste becomes more horizontal and more spiky. It conforms to the “long-tail” where the most popular things are even more popular than they could have ever been and the rest expands out into an infinite range of niche choices. Even “average” pop songs are more popular and stay popular longer than even the most popular songs of the 1960s or 1970s.
In a world of infinite “good” choice – the choices are usually made with random copying. Hence with 3500 different, excellent quality laptops – people will end up defaulting to the one or two most popular due to copying each other (the “I’ll have what she’s having” effect).
Experts in taste are usually simply the ones who have the most categories and components memorized. They have the toolset to break a thing down into component parts. They have the vocabulary to describe their taste which inherently puts them above average – even if their taste is no better than anyone else.
And all experts have to have a teacher. No one has a “great natural instinct” – expertness in taste is taught.
Taste and connoisseurship are formed as you pass through “gateways” – each of which provide a reference point for the next thing. But passing through gateways to appreciate more and better forms of a thing is not necessarily a good thing or a goal. It can actually inhibit happiness and muddle “great” and “favorite.”
Here’s Tom Vanderbilt’s “Field Guide to Liking” –
- You will know what you like or do not like before you know why.
- Get beyond “like” and “dislike.”
- Do you know why you like what you like?
- Talk about why you like something.
- We like things more when they can be categorized.
- Do not rust the easy like.
- You may like what you see, but you also see what you like.
- Liking is learning.
- We like what we expect to like; we like what we remember.
- Novelty vs. Familiarity; Conformity vs. Distinction; Simplicity vs. Complexity.
- Dislikes are harder to spot but more powerful.
- Trying to explain or understand any single person’s particular tastes – including one’s own – is always going to be a maddeningly elusive and idiosyncratic enterprise.
Taste is a complex topic – but it defines nearly everything about ourselves, our economy and our world now. You May Also Like is an excellent explainer to all the counterintuitive concepts that explain taste.