The Long Read: How does a song we dislike at first hearing become a favourite? And when we try to look different, how come we end up looking like everyone else?
If you had asked me, when I was 10, to forecast my life as an adult, I would probably have sketched out something like this: I would be driving a Trans Am, a Corvette, or some other muscle car. My house would boast a mammoth collection of pinball machines. I would sip sophisticated drinks (like Baileys Irish Cream), read Robert Ludlum novels, and blast Van Halen while sitting in an easy chair wearing sunglasses. Now that I am at a point to actually be able to realise every one of these feverishly envisioned tastes, they hold zero interest (well, perhaps the pinball machines in a weak moment).
It was not just that my 10-year-old self could not predict whom I would become but that I was incapable of imagining that my tastes could undergo such wholesale change. How could I know what I would want if I did not know who I would be?
One problem is that we do not anticipate the effect of experiencing things. We may instinctively realise we will tire of our favourite food if we eat too much of it, but we might underestimate how much more we could like something if only we ate it more often. Another issue is psychological salience, or the things we pay attention to. In the moment we buy a consumer good that offers cashback, the offer is claiming our attention; it might even have influenced the purchase. By the time we get home, the salience fades; the cashback goes unclaimed. When I was 10, what mattered in a car to me was that it be cool and fast. What did not matter to me were monthly payments, side-impact crash protection, being able to fit a stroller in the back, and wanting to avoid the appearance of being in a midlife crisis.
Even when we look back and see how much our tastes have changed, the idea that we will change equally in the future seems to confound us. It is what keeps tattoo removal practitioners in business. The psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues have identified the illusion that for many, the present is a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.
In one experiment, they found that people were willing to pay more money to see their favourite band perform 10 years from now than they were willing to pay to see their favourite band from 10 years ago play now. It is reminiscent of the moment, looking through an old photo album, when you see an earlier picture of yourself and exclaim, Oh my God, that hair! Or Those corduroys! Just as pictures of ourselves can look jarring because we do not normally see ourselves as others see us, our previous tastes, viewed from outside, from the perspective of what looks good now, come as a surprise. Your hairstyle per se was probably not good or bad, simply a reflection of contemporary taste. We say, with condescension, I cant believe people actually dressed like that, without realising we ourselves are currently wearing what will be considered bad taste in the future.
One of the reasons we cannot predict our future preferences is one of the things that makes those very preferences change: novelty. In the science of taste and preferences, novelty is a rather elusive phenomenon. On the one hand, we crave novelty, which defines a field such as fashion (a field of ugliness so absolutely unbearable, quipped Oscar Wilde, that we have to alter it every six months). As Ronald Frasch, the dapper president of Saks Fifth Avenue, once told me, on the womens designer floor of the flagship store: The first thing the customer asks when they come into the store is, Whats new? They dont want to know what was; they want to know what is. How strong is this impulse? We will sell 60% of what were going to sell the first four weeks the goods are on the floor.
But we also adore familiarity. There are many who believe we like what we are used to. And yet if this were strictly true, nothing would ever change. There would be no new art styles, no new musical genres, no new products. The economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalisms role was in teaching people to want (and buy) new things. Producers drive economic change, he wrote, and consumers are taught to want new things, or things which differ in some respect or other from those which they have been in the habit of using.
A lot of times, people dont know what they want until you show it to them, as Steve Jobs put it. And even then, they still might not want it. Apples ill-fated Newton PDA device, as quaint as it now looks in this age of smartphone as human prosthesis, was arguably too new at the time of its release, anticipating needs and behaviours that were not yet fully realised. As Wired described it, it was a completely new category of device running an entirely new architecture housed in a form factor that represented a completely new and bold design language.
So, novelty or familiarity? As is often the case, the answer lies somewhere in between, on the midway point of some optimal U-shaped curve plotting the new and the known. The noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy sensed this optimum in what he termed the MAYA stage, for most advanced, yet acceptable. This was the moment in a product design cycle when, Loewy argued, resistance to the unfamiliar reaches the threshold of a shock-zone and resistance to buying sets in. We like the new as long as it reminds us in some way of the old.
Anticipating how much our tastes will change is hard because we cannot see past our inherent resistance to the unfamiliar. Or how much we will change when we do and how each change will open the door to another change. We forget just how fleeting even the most jarring novelty can be. When you had your first sip of beer (or whisky), you probably did not slap your knee and exclaim, Where has this been all my life? It was, People like this?
We come to like beer, but it is arguably wrong to call beer an acquired taste, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett argues, because it is not that first taste that people are coming to like. If beer went on tasting to me the way the first sip tasted, he writes, I would never have gone on drinking beer. Part of the problem is that alcohol is a shock to the system: it tastes like nothing that has come before, or at least nothing pleasant. New music or art can have the same effect. In a New Yorker profile, the music producer Rick Rubin recounted that when he first heard Pretty Hate Machine, the album by Nine Inch Nails, he did not care for it. But it soon became his favourite. Faced with something discordantly novel, we dont always have the reference points to absorb and digest it, Rubin said. Its a bit like learning a new language. The album, like the beer, was not an acquired taste, because he was not hearing the same album.
Looking back, we can find it hard to believe we did not like something we now do. Current popularity gets projected backwards: we forget that a now ubiquitous song such as the Romantics What I Like About You was never a hit or that recently in vogue antique baby names such as Isabella or Chloe, which seem to speak to some once-flourishing tradition, were never popular.
It now seems impossible to imagine, a few decades ago, the scandal provoked by the now widely cherished Sydney Opera House. The Danish architect, Jrn Utzon, was practically driven from the country, his name went unuttered at the opening ceremony, the sense of national scandal was palpable towards this harbourside monstrosity. Not only did the building not fit the traditional form of an opera house; it did not fit the traditional form of a building. It was as foreign as its architect.
The truth is, most people probably did not know what to make of it, and our default setting, faced with an insecure unknown, is disliking. Frank Gehry, talking about his iconic, widely admired Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, admitted that it took a couple of years for me to start to like it, actually. The architect Mark Wigley suggests that maybe we only ever learn something when some form we think of as foreign provokes us and we resist. But sometimes, many times, in the middle of the resistance, we end up loving this thing that has provoked us.
Fluency begets liking. When shown images of buildings, architects have rated them as less complex than laypersons did; in other words, they read them more fluently, and the buildings seem less foreign. The role of the architect, suggests Wigley, is not to give the client exactly what he was asking for in other words, to cater to current taste but to change the idea of what one can ask for, or to project future tastes no one knew they had. No one said an opera house could look like the Sydney Opera House until Utzon, taking his idea from a peeled orange, said it could. The world changed around the building, in response to it, which is why, in the curious words of one architecture critic, Utzons breathtaking building looks better today than ever.
A few decades from now, someone will inevitably look with dread upon a new building and say, The Sydney Opera House, now theres a building. Why cant we build things like that any more?
This argument for example, Why isnt music as good as it used to be? reflects a historical selection bias, one colourfully described by the designer Frank Chimero. Let me let you in on a little secret, he writes. If you are hearing about something old, it is almost certainly good. Why? Because nobody wants to talk about shitty old stuff, but lots of people still talk about shitty new stuff, because they are still trying to figure out if it is shitty or not. The past wasnt better, we just forgot about all the shitty shit.
The only guarantee we have of taste is that it will change.
In a 2011 sketch on the show Portlandia, the obsessive satirical catalogue of the hipster mores of the Oregon city, an exaggeratedly posturing character known as Spyke with chin beard, lobe-stretching disk earrings, and a fixed-gear bike is shown walking past a bar. He sees some people inside, equally adorned with the trappings of a certain kind of cool, and gives an affirming nod. A few days later, he spies a clean-shaven guy wearing khakis and a dress shirt at the bar. Aw, cmon! he hollers. Guy like that is hanging out here? That bar is so over! It only gets worse: he sees his straight-man nemesis astride a fixed-gear bicycle, partaking in shell art, and wearing a chin beard all of which, he churlishly admonishes, is over. A year later, we see Spyke, freshly shorn of beard, wearing business casual, and having a banal conversation, perched in the very same bar that led off the whole cycle. The nemesis? He loiters outside, scornfully declaring the bar to be over.
The sketch wonderfully encapsulates the idea of taste as a kind of perpetual motion machine. This machine is driven in part by the oscillations of novelty and familiarity, of hunger and satiation, that curious internal calculus that causes us to tire of food, music, the colour orange. But it is also driven in part by the subtle movements of people trying to be like each other and people trying to be different from each other. There is a second-guessing kind of struggle here, not unknown to strategists of cold warera game theory (in which players are rarely acting on perfect information). Or, indeed, to readers familiar with Dr Seusss Sneetches, the mythical star-adorned creatures who suddenly ditch their decorations when they discover their rival plain-bellied counterparts have stars upon thars.
That taste might move in the kind of never-ending cycle that Portlandia hypothesised is not so far-fetched. A French mathematician named Jonathan Touboul identified a phenomenon of looking alike trying to look different, or what he called the hipster effect. Unlike cooperative systems, in which everyone might agree in a coordinated fashion on what decisions to make, the hipster effect occurs, he suggests, when people try to make decisions in opposition to the majority.
Because no one knows exactly what other people are going to do next, and information can be noisy or delayed, there can also be periods of brief synchronisation, in which non-conformists are accidentally aligned with the majority. Spyke, in reality, might have had to see several people doing shell art maybe it even suddenly appeared at a store in the mall before quickly packing it in. And because there are varying degrees of hipness, one person may choose to wade into a trend later than another, that person is followed by another, and so on, until, like an astronomical explorer chasing a dead star, there is nothing really there any more. The quest for distinctiveness can also generate conformity.
The Portlandia sketch actually goes well beyond taste and illuminates two central, if seemingly contradictory, strands of human behaviour. The first is that we want to be like other people. The social being, in the degree that he is social, is essentially imitative, wrote the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, in his 1890 book The Laws of Imitation. Imitating others, what is known as social learning, is an evolutionary adaptive strategy; that is, it helps you survive, even prosper. While it is seen in other species, there are no better social learners than humans, none that take that knowledge and continue to build upon it, through successive generations.
The sum of this social learning culture is what makes humans so unique, and so uniquely successful. As the anthropologist Joseph Henrich notes, humans have foraged in the Arctic, harvested crops in the tropics, and lived pastorally in deserts. This is not because we were meant to, but because we learned to.
In their book Not by Genes Alone, the anthropologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson use the example of a bitter plant that turns out to have medicinal value. Our sensory system would interpret the bitter as potentially harmful and thus inedible. Instinctively, there is no reason we should want to eat it. But someone eats it anyway and sees some curiously beneficial result. Someone else sees this and gives it a try. We take our medicine in spite of its bitter taste, they write, not because our sensory psychology has evolved to make it less bitter, but because the idea that it has therapeutical value has spread through the population.
People imitate, and culture becomes adaptive, they argue, because learning from others is more efficient than trying everything out on your own through costly and time-consuming trial and error. The same is as true for people now reading Netflix or TripAdvisor reviews as it was for primitive foragers trying to figure out which foods were poisonous or where to find water. When there are too many choices, or the answer does not seem obvious, it seems better to go with the flow; after all, you might miss out on something good.
But if social learning is so easy and efficient, it raises the question of why anyone does anything different to begin with. Or indeed why someone might abandon an innovation. It is a question asked of evolution itself: why is there so much stuff for natural selection to sift through? The artist or innovator who was attacked in his day seems like some kind of genetic altruist, sacrificing his own immediate fitness for some future payoff at the level of the group.
Boyd and Richerson suggest there is an optimal balance between social and individual learning in any group. Too many social learners, and the ability to innovate is lost: people know how to catch that one fish because they learned it, but what happens when that fish dies out? Too few social learners, and people might be so busy trying to learn things on their own that the society does not thrive; while people were busily inventing their own better bow and arrow, someone forgot to actually get food.
Perhaps some ingrained sense of the evolutionary utility of this differentiation explains why humans are so torn between wanting to belong to a group and wanting to be distinct individuals. People want to feel that their tastes are not unique, yet they feel anxiety when told they are exactly like another person. Think of the giddy discomfort you feel when a co-worker shows up wearing a similar outfit. We seek some happy medium, like the Miss America contestant in Woody Allens Bananas who responds to a reporters question, Differences of opinion should be tolerated, but not when theyre too different.
If all we did was conform, there would be no taste; nor would there be taste if no one conformed. We try to select the right-sized group or, if the group is too large, we choose a subgroup. Be not just a Democrat but a centrist Democrat. Do not just like the Beatles; be a fan of Johns.