Why do we prefer what we prefer? Lately I’ve been thinking that “personal taste” is somewhat illusory; what different people “like” is actually a simple algorithm based on age, gender, and cultural trends. The majority of two to five year old girls in the United States like the color pink, fairies, and Disney princesses. (Gender stereotyping? Sure, but also observation.) Hipsters “like” single gear bikes. Hippies “like” hummus. And so on …
Beneath (or maybe mingled with) these broad demographic probabilities lies our real personal taste. For most of us, it (luckily) overlaps with the zeitgeist — others are compelled to wear Renaissance Faire clothes to work every day.
For a myriad of biological and cultural and indeterminate reasons, we find ourselves with a set of strong and weak preferences toward various foods, clothing styles, people, types of work, activities, and situations. How important is it to pay attention to these preferences?
The “get it done” camp is in favor of ignoring preferences and barreling ahead with whatever task needs doing. Don’t worry about finding the perfect career — just get a job and start working.
Don’t ask your kids what they want for dinner — just put some food on the table. Buy functional clothes that fit (and fit in). In terms of health — do the “work” required to stay healthy (hit the gym, eat vegetables, etc.). In terms of friends and relationships — “love the one you’re with” might be the attitude.
Supporting this camp is the fact that we tend to “like” what we are familiar with, and what we end up doing a lot. There is no other explanation for why Australians like Vegemite, or why Americans like sour milk chocolate (compare Hershey’s to any kind of European chocolate — the former has a distinct sour taste).
Also in support of this camp is the surprising finding that more choice reduces happiness. The link is to a TED video featuring Barry Schwartz, who has conducted some fascinating research regarding how we sabotage our own happiness by idealizing “the path not taken” whenever we make a choice. Consider the massive amount of personal freedom we have in Western society — we get to decide if we want to get married or not, and who we want to marry, we get to decide if we have kids or not (both birth control and social norms afford us this choice), we choose our career (and if we want to have a career, or just a job, or a source of passive income, or just mooch off of friends and family and the state), we can pick from dozens of dress styles, and of course we can choose among hundreds of different kinds of breakfast cereals. A more culturally constrained life (you will marry this person, have children, wear these traditional clothes, eat these traditional foods, and work for the family business) may sound nightmarish to our modern sensibilities, but it may also result in a happier, less regretful human being.
The other camp is the “personal taste” camp. In this camp, preferences are part of identity — we define ourselves by a personal style. We like these kinds of clothes, these kinds of food, this kind of work, that kind of music, those kinds of people, and so on. Preferences are important to this group.
A surprising piece of evidence in support of the pro-preference group is mentioned in this article about Robert Sapolsky and his decades of research into chronic stress. The finding has to do with exercise; when mice are forced to exercise on a treadmill, the physical exercise does not translate into health benefits or reduced stress; the positive effects of exercise are eliminated by the stress of being forced to do something. Maybe we shouldn’t force ourselves to do exercises we don’t enjoy. Certainly our superego can play the part of the cruel researcher, forcing us into behavior that doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe preferences are important.
Along similar lines, consider this essay by Milton Glaser, in which he discusses the idea that you should only work for people that you like (Section 1). Also, in Section 3, he mentions the gestalt therapy idea that certain combinations of people are “toxic” (leaving one or both parties less energized after an encounter). In my own experience, there’s something to this — there are some people I just don’t feel comfortable around, even if I respect and admire them. For whatever reason, I just can’t relax around them, and spending significant amounts of time together leaves me depleted. Note that this is different than saying a particular person is toxic — it’s more of a combination thing. Oregano and cinnamon are both delicious, but not together. We should accept that we, as people, have a certain flavor, and that flavor doesn’t go well with everything (though some of us are more like salt — we go well with pretty much everything, and some of us are more like saffron, or licorice, or cilantro). My point is that preference is important when we choose our friends — we shouldn’t ignore our gut feelings about people (and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we don’t like someone — it doesn’t mean they’re a bad person).
The same is true of certain situations. For awhile I actually kept a list; Things I Will Never Do Again. It included things like “Take a cab from London to Luton Airport” (you’ll hit traffic, be fleeced of all your cash, and still miss your flight) and “Shop at Safeway after 9pm” (when they inexplicably go down to one checker, and the single line snakes down the ice-cream aisle). I’ve discovered, the hard way, that certain situations invariably leave me miserable; the only solution is to avoid those situations entirely.
So how much weight should we give to our own preferences, and the preferences of those around us? It’s a complex area and I don’t have it all figured out. It does occur to me that there are a couple strategies we can apply to help navigate the preference paradox.
1) Pay attention to strong preferences, give weak ones less weight.
If we don’t have a crystal clear image in our head of what we want, or want to do, or who we want to be with, we’re probably better off just picking a course of action, committing to it for the immediate future (not forever), and doing our best to enjoy whatever we’ve picked. If it doesn’t work out, we can always change course later.
If we (or a client, or a child, or a relationship partner) don’t know exactly what we want, then trying to find “the perfect fit,” is probably a waste of time and effort. We’re better off selling (or buying) what’s available — the one item menu. Otherwise we’re just catering to vague whims, and running in circles.
2) Use personal style (and other lifestyle choices) to defend against choice, not as means to expand it.
Men over 40, and really anyone else who wants to, can get away with having a “uniform” — not an actual uniform but basically wearing the same thing every day. At best, its an iconic look — a kind of personal branding. At worst, it looks like you picked your clothes off the bedroom floor and put them back on. Either way it’s a good defense against the tyranny of infinite fashion choices. You’ve narrowed the possibilities to just a few — getting dressed no longer hurts your brain.
The same can be done with diet. As a more-or-less “paleo” eater, pasta is off my menu. When I go to a restaurant, that’s a whole section I don’t have to think about. My self-imposed dietary restrictions narrow my choice window and thus increase my happiness. The same would be true if I were a vegetarian. But because my restrictions are self-imposed, I don’t feel less free. Nobody is making me eat a particular way.
As long as it’s not imposed with too much rigidity, there’s nothing wrong with cutting out entire swaths of the behavioral and cultural spectrum that don’t mesh with our proclivities. Movies, opera, professional sports; they’re not for everybody. Pick what you like and stick to it. This kind of self-imposed limiting is like a vaccine against the crazy-making number of choices imposed on us by our consumeristic, freedom-driven society.
The opposite path (constantly seeking more choices, “keeping our options open,” and agonizing over whether we have made the right choice) leads to discontentment and irritability. Not only is the grass always greener — we’re always looking over the fence.
3) Understand the zeitgeist, even if you choose to ignore it.
In terms of self-expression and the arts, how much should we defend “our personal style” and how much should we pay attention to what is popular, what sells, and what people expect? Again, from the Milton Glaser essay, from the section entitled “Style Is Not To Be Trusted”:
But the point is that anybody who is in this for the long haul has to decide how to respond to change in the zeitgeist. What is it that people now expect that they formerly didn’t want? And how to respond to that desire in a way that doesn’t change your sense of integrity and purpose.
If you love composing for the harpsichord in the Baroque style — if that’s your true passion in life — then you should do it. But you should do it without complaining that you labor in obscurity. If you crave the limelight, you’ll have to change the zeitgeist — there just isn’t much demand for new Baroque harpsichord music at the moment.
My friend Tim Hanes had a thought about “personal style” in regards to fencing (we were both on the high school team). He believed “personal style” was a euphemism for bad form, or sloppiness. I think there’s deep truth in that statement — often what we defend as our personal style or choice is in fact just a mask for our weaknesses, knowledge/skill gaps, and inadequacies. This is problematic if we cut ourselves off from the possibility of learning, growing, and improving because we’re busy defending our “unique artistic style.” The fact is that improving and expanding our skills, knowledge, and experience won’t really change our artistic essence; it will instead strengthen our means and breadth of self-expression.
Ideally, in terms of artistic self-expression, we can find a way to “do our own thing” and still be culturally current and relevant. How? By following the (Hegelian) dialectic; by paying attention to the artistic/cultural conversation the best and brightest minds are conducting, in full public view.
Some examples of artists who have nailed it? The author David Mitchell is one — his work is recognizably his work despite the fact that he switches genres as easily as changing coats. And it all feels modern, current, and relevant, even if he’s writing about a Dutchman’s experience of 19th-century Japan. The Norwegian R&B/pop music production team Stargate is another example, they compose flawless, hook-laden tracks in different musical categories. Their sugary, clean, melodic, just-a-little-edgy, 808-snare heavy style is right up the middle of current pop tastes, but they’re not writing the same track over and over (compare Beyoncé “Irreplacable” with Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” to see what I mean). Other examples? Writers Jonathan Franzen and Malcom Gladwell.
More examples? Dance music producers Deadmau5 (don’t be a hater now), and Pryda. They are all creating exactly what they want (and need) to create, while also giving the majority of consumers exactly what they want (and need) to consume. They’re not selling out, nor are they ignoring current tastes. Other elements (luck, good timing, great marketing) are just as important for success, but without a product that lots of people want or need (and can relate to), chances of massive success are low.
Personally, I’ve had a few lucky instances where the products of my artistic efforts slightly overlapped with current tastes, but for the most part I’m still laboring in semi-obscurity. I intend to keep throwing pasta at the wall to see what sticks.
I realize this post is a little messy; some of the ideas may even contradict each other. If I totally understood this area (preferences, and how much we should pay attention to them) I probably wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it. In this strange era of social networking (Facebook, SoundCloud, WordPress, Flickr, etc.), we can get instantaneous feedback on our work (if we want it), and even our lives. It’s weird. If we ignore feedback from the world, we risk missing out on helpful, constructive ideas from intelligent people who want to see us succeed, and useful metrics regarding what interests people. On the other hand, if we pay too much attention to other peoples “likes,” we may find ourselves catering to the lowest common denominator, or chasing approval, or getting our feelings hurt by insensitive comments, or worst of all stopping our work because of a little criticism. At times I’ve been guilty of all of the above.
So, what do you like, and why?