You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice

You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice

Malcolm Gladwell without the payoff. You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice is a random journey that leads nowhere. Vanderbilt promises that his book will explain "why we like the things we like." In reality, he skims the surface of historic, academic, industrial, and recreational treatments of taste. Then shrugs and says that taste is still too complicated for us to understand. Thanks bro.

Maybe I expected too much from this book. I had just come off of reading "The Beginning of Infinity" which had discussed the importance of "qualia" and was hoping for a rigorous treatment of sensory perception and our ability to describe it. Instead, I got an anecdote about the 23 flavors in Dr. Pepper.

Even so, it could have been an interesting book. Vanderbilt interviews thinkers from Spotify/Pandora, food testing labs, beer competition judges, and academics. He explores the history of trend-setting and taste research. But I struggled to make it through the 200 pages of this book. The writing style apes Malcolm Gladwell but Vanderbilt fails to weave a coherent narrative thread and this book reads as a sequence of largely unrelated anecdotes. And there's no revelation at the end. What did I just read?

It doesn't help that the book's cover looks like it was designed in Microsoft Paint in 3 minutes by a second grader. That unpolished vibe persists through the entire book.

Highlights below:


And you say to me, friends, there is no disputing over tastes and tasting? But all of life is a dispute over taste and tasting! - Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

… Five important principles in the science of preferences:

  • They tend to be categorical...
  • They are usually contextual…
  • They are often constructed…
  • They are inherently comparative…
  • They can be devilishly hard to explain

People struggling to understand taste have sometimes suggested there is nothing to explain. As the Nobel Prize-winning economists George Stigler and Gary Becker controversially argued, “No significant behavior has been illuminated by assumptions of differences in taste.”... preferences could seem to “explain everything and therefore nothing.”

Where economists tend to think that a choice “reveals” a preference, psychologists often suspect a choice creates the preference.

The Fault Is Not In Our Stars

Luca also found that chains, after Yelp was introduced in the market he was studying, began to lose market share to independent restaurants. Picture Akerlof’s prototypical customer in 1963, eating his slightly better-than-average hamburger at a roadside chain, magically granted a smartphone: Suddenly he could learn where to get a great hamburger. As Luca notes, the “utility” of going to an independent restaurant was higher. Eaters had nothing to lose but the chains… One might even argue that Yelp, and the broader transmission of online taste, have helped drive the emergence of better chain restaurant options.

When a book, particularly, a novel, wins a big prize, its reception by readers… actually gets worse.... “The paradox of publicity”... Prizes can increase book sales, but this is a double-edged sword. The prize, the authors note, raises expectations; it goes from being a book you might like to being a book you should like… Not surprisingly, this often ends in dashed expectations.

Haters gonna hate, as it were. But haters also gonna rate.

How Predictable is Our Taste?

Who does Google think you are? There is an easy way to find out. Type

But no one quite so thoroughly plumbed the taxonomy of taste - what it was, what it was for - as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction, his landmark 1979 book, was dubbed a “Copernican revolution in the study of taste.”... Bourdieu emphasized just how minute these taste distinctions could run, how firmly tied to one’s place in society they seemed to be, and how often they were determined less by one’s wealth than by one’s education.

How do We Know What We Like?

More than one museum consultant has said the best way to increase patrons’ appreciation for art is simple: more coffee and chairs

One of the most important things we glean in that first fifty-millisecond burst is whether or not we like it. “The appreciation of the aesthetic worth of a picture,” argued the psychologist Hans Eysenck, “may be as instantaneous as the perception of the picture itself.”

As Italo Calvino described it for literature, a “classic is a book that has never finished what it wants to say.”

The whole construct of the guilty pleasure is oriented, culturally, downward.

Why (and How) Tastes Change

Disliking is arguably more of a force in forming social cohesion than liking.

Beer, Cats, and Dirt

Brad Kraus suggested a pragmatic, middle-ground strategy that seemed, in its humble way, to be a grand strategy for a happy life: “People often ask me, ‘What’s your favorite beer?’ I don’t have a favorite beer. I usually say it’s the one in my hand. It’s what sounded good to me.”

Tasting Notes

  • 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 trust 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