Once a function of class, taste has become an exercise in randomness

Jessica Johnson in The New Republic:

ScreenHunter_2029 Jun. 14 18.00One 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.

More here.