July 15, 2016

What’s your favorite color? Blue, red, purple, magenta, fuchsia… it’s not too difficult to choose one. But why is it your favorite color? That’s a little bit trickier to determine.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of “You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice,” took a look at the sometimes mysterious science and psychology behind our choices and taste.

His favorite color is blue, by the way, which is by far the most popular color. And there’s a theory as to why that is, the ecological valence theory. In Vanderbilt’s words:

“If you take a whole range of objects in the natural world, and you ask people how they feel about them, they seem to have the most positive feelings about things that turn out to be blue. So you can kind of imagine a clear summer blue sky, water… so it seems we’re subtly conditioned to begin to associate good things with blue.”

As demonstrated by the color example, the reasoning behind our tastes can sometimes be a bit byzantine.

But there are a few consistent points. First off, we like what’s familiar. And, according to Vanderbilt, we mostly like what other people like:

“Humans are social creatures. From the moment we’re born, infants - if they see someone who’s smiling at them and then chooses food A over food B - the infant is going to also be interested in food A.”

Then why doesn’t everyone like the same music? Aside from “Hey Ya” - which every single human being loves - human taste is varied. Some people like The Rolling Stones, some like Abba, some like Death Grips.

Vanderbilt supposes that, in our distant past, when people were hunter-gatherers and sticking together meant survival, “maybe those communities would become too static, maybe you needed that bold individual to go out and find a new food source. So you could make a metaphorical argument that these innovators and artists who depart from the norm are sort of doing so to drive the group forward in some way.”

Whatever drives our choices and tastes, it’s becoming easier and easier for them to be catered to. Companies like Netflix are looking at what movies we actually watch, and tailoring each individual user experience based on those choices.

So whether you’re a hunter choosing between streams to drink out of, or a millennial deciding whether to watch Firefly or Mr. Robot, the psychology behind your choices is similar. It’s just the number of choices - and technology behind them - that has changed.

Business, Tom Vanderbilt, pri, Kara Miller, WGBH

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