Taste: why we like what we like

You may think your likes and dislikes are formed through rational decision-making. After all— whether it is books, movies, music, food, romantic partners, or fashion—your tastes are a defining part of your identity. But the reality is more complicated than that. Our genes, our culture, and our experiences define why we like what we like.

The life buffet

In 1931, a chemist named Arthur Fox accidentally released a chemical compound called phenylthiocarbamide into the air. He noticed that a few of his colleagues felt the compound tasted bitter, but Arthur Fox and some other colleagues could not taste anything. The chemist then continued to test the taste buds of family, friends, and colleagues—as one does. The apparent impact of genetic variations was so great that phenylthiocarbamide ended up being used in paternity tests before the advent of DNA matching.

Clearly, our genes shape our tastes, but that’s not all. Culture has a defining effect on our tastes as well. Dr Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works, explains that the “plasticity theory has to be right to some extent. Nobody could deny that culture can shape and structure human pleasure; even those pleasures that we share with other animals, such as food and sex, manifest themselves in different ways across societies. Taken to an extreme, then, one might conclude that although natural selection played some limited role in shaping what we like—we have evolved hunger and thirst, a sex drive, curiosity, some social instincts—it had little to do with the specifics.”

If you still think that you have lots of control over your tastes, well… You also need to take into account your expectations and experiences. In his book, Dr Paul Bloom also explains how our expectations shape our experience. For instance, a Bordeaux presented as grand cru classé was overwhelmingly rated as worth drinking by wine experts, but few of these experts chose the very same wine when it was labeled as vin de table. Cultural trends can have a massive impact on what you think you like.

To make things even more out of your control, take the mere exposure effect: the more times you try something, the more you will like it. This phenomenon was first described by psychologist Dr Robert Zajonc: “Mere repeated exposure of the individual to a stimulus is a sufficient condition for the enhancement of their attitude towards it.” The effect has been found in everything from food, to languages, to music, and art.

Changing tastes

We may not know what we like, but we sure don’t like what we don’t know. Our tastes evolve over time with increased knowledge, new experiences, changing expectations, and the way your body ages. Think about the books you were reading when you were younger, or how you were dressing a few years ago. Contemplate new foods and fragrances you have come to appreciate. Your tastes keep on changing.

Sometimes, the changes are purely physical. We tend to lose our sense of smell—and thus our sense of taste—when we grow older. As Dr Boyce and Dr Shone explain: “Gustatory dysfunction may indeed be related to the normal ageing process. However, in many cases, what is perceived as a taste defect is truly a primary defect in olfaction.” Smokers and heavy drinkers will also see their sense of taste change over time.

But, often, the changes are caused by our expanding experience of the world. Aesthetic judgements and preferences change over time. Major and minor life experiences shape our worldview, and therefore our tastes. We may adapt to new social trends, or to new life stages. All in all, our tastes are hard to control and ever-changing. But you can still be more proactive when it comes to shaping them.

Shaping your tastes

Most people are not in control of their tastes. It does not mean we have to simply accept our tastes for what they are. Acquiring new tastes and getting rid of old ones can be a fulfilling experience. Here are three ways you can actively shape your tastes:

  • Explore. Instead of sticking to what you like, get out of your comfort zone. Try experiences you have never tried before, or re-try experiences you disliked in the past. Explore your tastes on your own, or with friends. Comparing your experiences can be a great way to open your mind. Learn about food, music, and arts from other cultures. The more exposure to new experiences, the more likely you are to acquire new interesting tastes.
  • Slow down. Whether it comes to food, travel, reading, or any other activity, don’t rush it. Take your time to appreciate all the layers and intricacies of the experience. Whether you decide you like it or not, you will have given it a proper chance to show all its facets. Instead of automatically putting things in the “like” or “dislike” category, you will be much more deliberate in the way you shape your tastes.
  • Reflect. Your tastes are not fixed. They will keep on changing over the course of your life. However, you do not have to just let this process happen to you; you can be proactive by reflecting on your experience. Why is it you now dislike something you used to like? Why did you enjoy a new experience so much? Are there any common denominators you can identify? Making time for self-reflection—perhaps through journaling—will help you seek more of what you like, explore new experiences outside of your established tastes, or get rid of unhealthy acquired tastes.

Our taste is shaped by our genes, our culture, and our experiences. We have way less control over what we like than we think. But there is space for experimentation, reflection, and playfulness. Explore new tastes, slow down, and make time for self-reflection. In some case, you may even be able to tell why you like what you like.

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