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.
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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?
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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.
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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 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.