April 26, 2017

I Like It—But Why?

Our 1530 Main editor seeks answers

When I read an article or listen to a podcast about human nature in general, I’m secretly listening to gain insight into myself. I have the hope that somehow a macro understanding of why we do what we do could enlighten my micro corner of the world.

Author Tom Vanderbilt’s mind flows in the opposite direction. His little observations about everything from traffic to trash to revolving restaurants spawn bigger inquiries about society. A question from his five-year-old daughter—“Daddy, what’s your favorite color?”—sparked his fourth book, You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.

In it, he explores topics of preference and choice, researching corporations whose products we interact with daily, including Pandora, Netflix, Google, and Spotify. He questions why we prefer certain things, like hit songs or the color blue. It’s Vanderbilt’s favorite, but interestingly the overwhelming pick of others, too. “Predominately blue Instagram posts tend to receive 25% more likes than other colors,” he says. The reason? Studies suggest that the positive connotations stem from blue’s presence in nature—cloudless skies, crystalline water.

At last week’s Arts & Letters Live lecture at the Dallas Museum of Art, Vanderbilt shared some of the more interesting findings and conclusions he uncovered writing his book, such as our inclination to like things we expect to like. “This is most true when it comes to food,” he says, explaining why people prefer expensive wines, until they’re in a blind tasting. Then, all bets are off.

The author also addressed our conflicting desires for familiarity and novelty and individuality and belonging. Much of it relates to imitation and how mirroring (or opposing) what we see can influence our choices. It’s all part of our individual striving for “optimal distinction,” the ideal balance of inclusion and distinction within a group. As Vanderbilt explains, “We all want to be differently alike.” —Michelle Padgett

The Details: Fittingly, Vanderbuilt’s book comes your choice of blue or red. Ironically, Amazon will make the selection for you. Click here to see the upcoming Arts & Letters Live guest speakers.