“The brain is an inference-generating machine… people walk around with a model in their heads.”
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If you were to ask me what my favorite kinds of movies are, I’d probably tell you that I enjoy quirky independent comedies and illuminating narrative documentaries. But if you looked at my Netflix history, you’d see that I watched a lot of blockbusters and “Crime, Action & Adventure.”1
On this week’s What’s The Point, Tom Vanderbilt, a journalist and author of the new book “You May Also Like,” discusses how our taste exists as both personal preference and social performance, and how the digital age is complicating what it means to like something. We’re presented with more and more choice, but taste is in many ways a process of optimization. Our brains want to find what we like as efficiently as possible.
Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Below is a transcript of a few highlights from the conversation.
Can you really “hate-like” something?
Jody Avirgan: Do you think that there is such a thing as “hate watching” or “hate-liking” something?
Tom Vanderbilt: The terms are interesting. I mean, the old expression “there’s a thin line between love and hate” … You know some research actually sort of backs that up, in which showing people very positive images lights up some of the same areas [of the brain] as showing them things they actually dislike. And I know neurological research is very sloppy and you can’t draw too much from that, but still….
Avirgan: It’s a real struggle to find language to describe this. Because when you say something like “hate watching” or “a mix of pain and pleasure” you could also just as easily say: Well look, if you’re watching it and you’re committed to it, and you consistently go back and do the same things over and over, that just means you like it! You don’t “hate-like” it! Because you’re doing it!
Vanderbilt: Yeah. And then [there’s] the whole idea of “guilty pleasure,” which I think comes more from a societal point of view. Because if we didn’t know what other people thought, then why would we feel guilty about something? And I really think guilty pleasure is almost a secret password we give each other to test out whether someone else also likes something.
Avirgan: It’s like dipping a toe into —
Vanderbilt: Yeah, it’s like a poker bluff in a way. You’re sort of saying “well yeah, this is just a guilty-pleasure for me, but boy did I enjoy that show…” Just in case the other person reveals a different hand.
The tricky language of social taste.
Avirgan: Did you come up with any rules or basic notions of how we can talk about taste in a more effective way?
Vanderbilt: It’s a tricky one. In some ways I think we don’t need that much language. I mention in [my] book that Wittgenstein, the philosopher… came up with sort of an early mention of what would be thought of today as emoji. He thought because we struggle with language so much it might be simpler to just replace language with simple little happy-face symbols. And maybe that’s good enough to express this thing that’s actually pretty complicated.
One thing that was curious to me in talking to people like sensory analysts, people who are paid to consume food — they’re really more interested in the properties of that food. Like what flavors are in it. They told me that you can never think about whether you like it or dislike it… because just that mere concept, liking or disliking, will throw off the whole sensory experience. So it just speaks again to how much [context] matters. If we go into a museum exhibit expecting to like it, how much of that has already kind of greased the wheels of our future liking? How much have we made that predictive bet that we think we’re going to like it?
I’m really trying to examine and harshly interrogate my own dislikes, because I think that’s almost the more interesting part of the question. We’re really optimized as humans to be able to like anything, from food to living in different environments. Were very adaptable. Dislike shouldn’t even emerge at all.
Avirgan: So what did you learn?
Vanderbilt: I think a lot of it is just a filtering mechanism. I think we feel like we need to filter some things out to make life simpler.
Avirgan: So we’re defining what we like by defining it against something we don’t like, in a way…
Vanderbilt: Yeah. By sheer habit we do the same things. And often there is a social thing going on there. We say we don’t like a certain form of music or musical act, but what we might be really saying is we don’t like the people who like that.
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