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The Tyranny of Taste

Once a function of class, taste has become an exercise in randomness. But isn't there anything still unique about us?

Pascal Le Segretain / Getty

One of the most pure and innocent of decisions, at least in theory, is the ritual of choosing a flavor in an ice cream shop. There, behind the counter, is the bounty of options ranging from the classic (vanilla, chocolate) to the nostalgic (rocky road, butter pecan) to the exotic (what is in that blue barrel over in the corner?). Somewhere in the frosty air hangs the suggestion that whatever selection we end up with will be uniquely “us”—along with an idea that, whatever everyone else gets, all options are uniquely good.

A cone of ice cream, one vanilla and one chocolate, appear on the two different covers, one red and one blue, of You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Tom Vanderbilt’s new book on the mechanisms of the aesthetic world. Vanderbilt suggests there is probably very little that is natural, independent, or even “right” about any of our choices. “The more a person’s experience with a product matches his expectation, the more he will like it, and vice versa,” he writes, reporting on a research facility that develops M.R.E. rations. It turns out the reason soldiers can tolerate the same bland food for months may also be why your mother always orders vanilla. Human beings are wired both for familiarity and novelty, the gas-and-brake system of evolution. While an initial arc of appreciation for what’s new and exciting quickly tapers, the familiar has longevity—perhaps also reflecting some innate biological prejudice against extremes. In other words, “What did not kill you last time is good for you this time.”

In the hallways of the Louvre, Vanderbilt finds further insight into the wisdom of crowds: Visitors marvel at the Mona Lisa over, say, a lesser-known work nearby, because they have already been told to expect a masterpiece. We like to think our responses to art, food, even the new remake of Ghostbusters are organic and spontaneous, revealing of some inner wisdom. Over a meal at New York’s Michelin-starred Del Posto, Vanderbilt recalls the psychologist Leon Festinger’s 1957 theory of “cognitive dissonance,” which accounts for a common tendency to try to align all of our beliefs and experiences. Torn between a daily special and a familiar menu item, “we try to avoid any post-decision choice malaise (What if I really wanted the fish?) by increasing our liking for what we have chosen (Oh, this pasta is divine!),” he writes. Any entrée on a $149 tasting menu will generally turn out to have been the “right” choice.

One of the difficulties in writing a book about taste in the era of the foodie, fashionista, curator, or influencer is that its importance has evolved throughout history. To our Paleolithic ancestors, the type of decision a modern restaurant-goer takes for granted—“Will that be still or sparkling water?”—would be laughable in the pursuit of immediate survival. By the eighteenth century, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant began to pull out from our more primordial urges an appreciation of aesthetics for their own sake. The ability to enjoy beauty at a “physical and intellectual remove,” as Vanderbilt explains, became one of the markers of a civilized person. It also set the groundwork for taste to become a function of class.

Knopf, 320 pp., $26.95

For much of modern history, taste has been a lever to delineate “good” from “bad,” high society from low. The ability to identify socially appropriate choices in classical literature, architecture and music, and to measure human behavior against such distinctions as French and Russian table service, has provided the elite with means by which to distinguish “us” from “them.” The terms highbrow and lowbrow, first used in 1902, take their name from the pseudoscience of phrenology—the larger the brow, the larger the brain. A 1949 spread in Life magazine lay out “Everyday Tastes from High Brow to Low Brow are Classified in this Chart,” including ballet (highbrow), theater (upper-middlebrow), front-yard sculpture (lower middlebrow), and coleslaw (lowbrow). In the 1950s, Nancy Mitford, in Noblesse Oblige, characterized the differences between the upper and lower classes in Britain as “U and non-U,” derived from a paper by linguist Alan Ross who studied the English uses of the British aristocracy. (The U would admire themselves in a “looking-glass,” while the non-U would be satisfied with a “mirror.”)

In the last decade, the algorithms of Spotify and Netflix, the rankings of Amazon and Yelp, the binary yes-no of Tinder, have all helped to make taste a veritable cipher for identity. It is also behind the commoditized “like” in the social media sense; as of 2013, Facebook posts yielded an average 4.5 likes daily. In spite of all of this, there have been few critical works to explore the concept of taste in recent history. John Seabrook’s 2001 book, Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing + The Marketing of Culture, defined the collapse of brow culture, and Carl Wilson’s 2007 Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste, turned the tables yet again. But there hasn’t really been a comprehensive look at taste since French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 The Physiology of Taste, a holistic and essayistic meditation on taste that aimed to define the previously undefinable. “Taste is the sense which puts us in contact with savorous or sapid bodies,” he wrote. It can be “excited by appetite, hunger or thirst” and is the “basis for several operations which result in a man’s growth and development.”

You May Also Like is a measured consideration of appetites in food, music, and art, as well as evaluations of talent and beauty that can be easily skewed, such as bias among gymnastics judges. Vanderbilt, a journalist, reports from events that chose the very best in their fields, including the Salon International du Chat in Paris and the Great American Beer Festival in Denver (“The Super Bowl of the American craft beer renaissance”). He also goes behind the scenes at companies whose apps and algorithms have come to inflect, if not entirely direct, the way we conduct our lives, presenting data that will be new to most of us, along with explanations for sociological phenomena one might not have even guessed there were explanations for.

What emerges is a characterization of taste as a flexible filter. We are influenced by the opinions of others—the more people review an Amazon product positively or negatively, the more other people are primed to respond in kind—but opinion has its limits. The more popular a product becomes, Vanderbilt finds, the more likely it is for the overall rating to go down. Too much positive opinion can lead to disappointment among the types of audiences who were not likely to appreciate it. “It is not uncommon to find late, fairly flummoxed, one-star reviews of only a sentence or two: ‘I just didn’t like it.’” Even things we don’t think we like, we eventually come to like via repeated exposure, the explanation for the success of many a hit single. “Liking is learning, and learning is liking—even if we are not always aware of it,” he writes.

Vanderbilt is more of an observer than critic by nature. The greatest strength of his 2008 book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), is in the recognition and description of patterns. In You May Also Like, he draws an analogy between the rules of the road and the way we behave in crowds:

Taste is like traffic...a large complex system with basic parameters and rules, a noisy feedback chamber where one does what others do and vice versa, in a way that is almost impossible to predict beyond that at the end of the day a certain number of cars will travel down a stretch of road, just as a certain number of songs will be in the Top 100.”

Over the course of this journey, you begin to sense there’s only randomness at the end. At first, it’s a disappointment. The belief in individual taste is unique, with meaning, has been with us at least since Brillat-Savarin’s famous pronouncement, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” (A more accurate translation might be, “Tell me what class you’re from, and I’ll tell you what you’re fated to be.”) Take that integrity away, and what is left? Isn’t there anything unique and meaningful about our tastes, and by extension, about us?

The fact that our tastes are adaptable doesn’t have to mean that preferences aren’t worth pursuing; if anything, they remain an essential component to modern existence. One of the book’s richest sections is the one about music, where taste helps us to find a place among our own kind. Heavy metal fans represent a slim segment of the overall population, but are devoted. They “want to hear metal—to the exclusion of other music—more than fans of other genres want to hear their own music.” The most bitter disputes can often arise among people of the same general taste category, what Freud referred to as the narcissism of small differences. Put all of the people who enjoy Philip Glass in a room and they will immediately begin to fight about the success of his opera, Einstein on the Beach. Taste is, in the end, a tool used to align people to the people they like, and the people they want to be like.

One of the saddest revelations in the book is about the aura of contemporary taste under which we now live. Looking over the U.S. Census from 1982 to 1992, two researchers noted an emerging trend of behavior they dubbed “omnivorous”: “So-called highbrows began listening to, and liking, more kinds of music, including ‘lowbrow’ genres like country and blues.” Today, the pressure to maintain what Vanderbilt refers to as a number of “weak likes” across many different genres of music, cuisine, fashion and more is not only exhausting, it can be disingenuous. But it has roots in survival strategy. “Being a snob could actually be socially counterproductive, lessening one’s ability to move across different social networks,” Vanderbilt notes. In that light, the proliferation of taste we know today might be a reasonable response to the deep and wide new cultural waters in which we swim. There is nothing more illustrative than New York magazine’s Approval Matrix, a visual survey of timely works, people, and pop cultural products plotted on a scale from Despicable to Brilliant, Highbrow to Lowbrow. It contains within it a nostalgia for a sense of editorial rightness, for a time when having taste didn’t have to come with a meta-judgment of taste itself. Reading Vanderbilt’s book, I was reminded of nothing so much as the years my friends and I have spent going to indie rock shows, surrounded by fawning fans who could express their appreciation for a band via only the slightest nodding. In learning how to like, it seems, we have forgotten how to love.