Why Do We Like What We Like? A Conversation with Tom Vanderbilt & Nir Eyal

“Our gut instinct works well, but often it’s not enough.”

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, recently sat down with Tom Vanderbilt, author of You May Also Like, at Heleo headquarters to discuss the question: why do we like what we like? The answer is a complex set of influences and tendencies that can be applied to everything from food to music to new products in the marketplace. Read on to find out why Donald Trump’s ratings are going up, why Google Glass never took off, and how to get kids to like spinach.

Nir Eyal: I’d love for you to first introduce the central question that you’re taking on in the book.

Tom Vanderbilt: It started because I’m a consumer in the modern world. I found that I was having trouble on a daily basis not only making decisions, but analyzing what other people were saying about the decisions they could make.

Think of a decision that used to be simple, like where to eat. Maybe before I would ask one or two friends. Now I’m on Yelp trying to decide, “Is this place worth my time?”, and spending ten minutes reading through reviews. I was loving the information I was getting, but I was also being paralyzed by it. “Well, that person didn’t quite like it as much, so should I actually go into this place?”

I found that on a daily basis I was asking myself, “How do I feel about something?” Did I really like the things I like or were a lot of them just habits?

A really simple story that I tell in the book is that I was walking to school one day with my daughter and she asked me my favorite color. (This is the kind of question that only a child can ask.) But I thought, “What was my favorite color? Did I have one and what would that mean? If I did what could it possibly explain?”

Nir: We tend to believe that we like the things we like because we just do. Our tastes are authentic to us — they come from our inner being. You say that nothing could be further from the truth — all these other things are influencing what we like. What are all the factors that influence what we really choose to like?

Tom: I use the example of when you set out to eat a meal. You’re hungry. You’ve read about this place. You’re looking forward to it. But the minute you begin to eat that meal, your body starts sending you signals that you’re beginning to like that food just a little bit less because you’re going to get to a point of satiation. Your body is saying you’ve had enough, maybe it’s time to shift to something else. It’s a mechanism known as sensory specific satiety.

It’s a little metaphor for the way things can change all the time. Netflix, for example, has done studies where people rate a film right after they’ve watched it. When they go back and rate it again in three weeks their rating changes. The film didn’t change, what’s changed is their opinion of it.

There are endless examples of how context can shape what you choose. One of my favorite examples is an art gallery. Most of us aren’t going there to buy stuff, we’re just there to appreciate art. In a Swiss gallery they put a painting in the center of the wall and then they watched how many people saw it. Then they moved it to the corner of the room and the number of people who saw it dropped dramatically. It was the same painting, but fewer people liked it because they couldn’t see it.

Nir: I remember reading in that chapter that the average amount of time someone actually sees a painting is, like, six seconds?

Tom: It’s seventeen seconds median. You know, I was just at the Metropolitan Museum on Sunday and thinking about this. I timed myself to make sure I was giving it more than that.

Those same people did a follow up study at the Art Institute of Chicago. They discovered that the time has not changed of how long people look at a painting, but people now take selfies in front of the painting. They’re looking at it even less, stopping to take selfies.

Nir: In several chapters you talk about mere exposure effect, that really the reason we like something is because we’re familiar with it.

Tom: Robert Zayas was one of the first people to really talk about it. It’s the idea that if you feel neutral towards something in the beginning, your liking for it will begin to go up the more you’re exposed to it.

I give the example of the beginning of the acid house movement, which was a house song from Chicago in the 1980s that no one had ever heard. The DJ put it on — it was a very strange sound — and people just kind of stood there and shuffled around uncomfortably. If he had never played it again that might have been the end of that song, but he tried it again. He put it on a third time. Each time people heard it, it became a little bit more familiar to them.

That’s what’s going on in this process of trying to appreciate new music or food. If you have children, there’s a recommended 10 exposures of food before the liking is secured. Some things obviously happen right away, like sugar. But with a lot of things, if we had just given up after the second or third exposure, we might not have found something that we ended up loving. Our gut instinct works well, but often it’s not enough.

Nir: My mind races to the election when you say exposure is the reason we like a certain dish or a certain piece of music. In this election season where the two presidential candidates have these names that we’ve been exposed to probably thousands and thousands of times in our lifetimes, did that actually affect who the candidates are?

Tom: I would think so. If you study focus groups long enough, you find that people’s stated preferences often do not sync up with their revealed preferences. There’s the silent majority phenomenon, for example. Although Trump’s doing better in the polls now, there might have been a situation when a lot of people would not want to say they were supporters of Trump, but actually were.

Even something like your Netflix queue represents an idealized version of who you are. If you talk with Netflix employees, people’s stated likes are quite different from actual behavior.

I quote Steve Jobs, “A lot of people don’t know what they like until you put it in front of them.” Trump started as a sort of joke. But the longer he’s out there people begin to become more comfortable with him. It seems like more of a real proposition and that may enhance liking.

Nir: I thought this book was particularly relevant for entrepreneurs, for product makers trying to make a good or service that people like. What’s your advice? What can they take away from the book that can help them build a product that people enjoy?

Tom: Human taste hinges on this axis of familiarity and novelty. In some ways we’ve evolved to respond to both. There’s a quote I like, “What didn’t kill you yesterday is what you can enjoy today.” We can see why familiarity is a good thing.

Part of our brain is also optimized for responding to novelty and seeing new opportunities. There’s no exact formula here. I talk about industrial designer Raymond Loewy. He had this phenomenon he called the MAYA principle: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. This is where often he thought people should try to place new products when launching them. If it’s too radical, too ahead of its time, it’s just not going to find the right niche. It answers a need that hasn’t yet been fully developed. There are examples like the Apple Newton or the Segway or Google Glass, things that were supposed to revolutionize society, but didn’t.

“Instead of ‘Think Different,’ the slogan for Apple should be ‘Think Different… But Not Too Different.'”

Nir: Instead of “Think Different,” the slogan for Apple should be “Think Different… But Not Too Different.”

Tom: Exactly. The flip side of that is when something is too familiar, and there’s not enough novelty. That curve is very different for different organizations, but it’s an interesting principle to keep in mind.

Nir: If it’s too simple it’s boring, you’ve seen it a hundred times, but if it’s too complex, they don’t understand it. We want that perfect curve at the top of something familiar done slightly differently, slightly better.

Tom: If we had to draw a napkin sketch, there would be three curves: familiarity and novelty, simplicity and complexity, and conformity and distinction.

Conformity versus distinction ties into something which I’ll just call optimal distinctiveness. People like to be like other people to a certain point. We are social beings. We evolved into small communities. Social cohesion is generally a good thing. However, we also fancy ourselves individuals so too much conformity makes our sixth sense go off. This explains why we have fashion cycles. Why otherwise would people demand to wear something that other people are not wearing?

Nir: You write about how so many of our tastes are not necessarily inherent to us. They’re influenced by all these outside factors and you give tasting notes to help us enjoy the things around more. Can you share some of your favorite tasting notes on how can we get the most out of the things we use and experience?

Tom: I talked to expert sensory tasters at places like McCormick and their job isn’t really about pleasure, it’s about sampling spices and flavorings and other foods to analyze the sensory profile. They’re not really allowed to think about whether they like or dislike something. Just having that thought will throw off their sensory experience. We often do that ourselves. We go into a situation with a prejudicial notion, “I think I’m going to like this. I don’t think I’m going to like this.” That very thought will affect the experience, whereas if we go in open-minded, we can try to enjoy a sensory experience with no preconception.

“Sensory experts will tell you how important language is to unlocking the experience.”

Nir: You say also to talk more about the experience, that you enjoy the experience more when you elaborate on it.

Tom: Sensory experts will tell you how important language is to unlocking the experience. This is one of the first things an apprentice sommelier will learn, that there’s a very exact vocabulary and a very precise structure in which to describe a wine.

Talking more after the fact can also leave it stronger in memory. Liking is often a factor of what we remember. Food is this way. With food, we’re always between anticipating the next meal and remembering the last great meal.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.