Exploring the Subjectivities of Taste

Why do you prefer the Beats over the Bloomsburys, prose over poetry, or the book over the movie? More simply why do you like what you like and what makes you like it? Unfortunately, science has just as few answers as we do. Understanding preferences is like trying to read while sprinting on the treadmill. Everything is in a shaky flux, and it’s as difficult to pin down an algorithmic reason as it is to follow the trajectory of a line mid paragraph.

The abridged version of why we like what we like is much like the rarely used Facebook relationship status (do people even do that still?) – it’s complicated. A preference incorporates a million tiny and massive factors. It’s both over-determined and under determined. Over-determined in the sense that we create a set of large scope preferences over a lifetime (favorite genres for instance) and under-determined in the sense that years of developed preference can be subverted by something as simple as wording. You may have always liked historical romances more than female heroine comic books, but the second the latter is called ‘graphic novel’ you have a change of heart.

Indecision… via GIPHY

Many decisions, like the contentious debate of historical romances versus graphic novels, are split decisions based on what we believe to be intuition. In reality, when we’re discussing book preferences what were really discussing is the amalgamation of a million different cues that trigger a feeling: word choice that intrigues us, tone, phrasing, and more than anything, audience perception. If a book is widely known, it may make you love it – or hate it. Is the book less known? The same responses hold true either way you slice it. Audience perception of a book molds your own. Whatever the social groups we latch onto like or dislike, we like or dislike. Much of what we prefer has to do with the assumption that we prefer it, regardless of if we really would.

“All of life is a dispute over taste,” according to Nietzsche, and this is nowhere more evident than in a literary discussion. Beyond literature, the suggestibility and subjectivity of taste pervades the entire creative world. This is most frequently pointed to in the art world, where value is gained not by meeting an index of qualities, but rather esteemed in a sort of celebrity culture – an artist gains momentum from being in the right circles; the product becomes second to status.

In the art world, something like Warhol’s 1962 dollar print – made from 200 $1 bills – should have a value of $200, yet it sold for millions (image courtesy of Mooc) 


Beyond being highly suggestible creatures, we are also terrible predictors of what we’ll like in the future. Anyone who’s taken an your clichéd undergrad psych class is probably familiar with experiments citing this universal hubris. The studies go a little something like this: You may order the same sandwich every day for lunch, but because you just finished your meal and can’t stomach the thought of another tuna sandwich, you’re likely to say you won’t order the same tomorrow.Yet come tomorrow, you’ll be enjoying another tuna fish sandwich. We have a tendency to take our current state of being and apply it into the future, failing to take account of shifts and change.

We also love to lump probabilities together: We think it’s more likely that Jim is a professor and Jim has a Prius, rather than just one or the other. It makes less sense mathematically, yet our brains say go for it. When you combine subjective, suggestible taste with a terrible ability to predict – how can you really claim to have a fixed preference?

Then again, maybe it’s a good thing we can’t pin down preference. Relinquishing the belief that you chose anything for a grounded reason opens the door to new experiences and in the case of book taste, new reads. There’s something appealing about throwing caution to the wind (calm down, we’re still just talking books) and indulging in a Russian roulette style of reading. Read books presumed for men, women, republicans, democrats, books you think you’ll hate – whatever you wouldn’t traditionally read – and challenge preference in exchange for something eye-opening and new. You can always use the refresher. 


Featured image courtesy of The Conversation.