In The News
Tom Vanderbilt engages with the psychology of taste: we like what we can easily identify, he says, and find genre-defying entities (artworks, people, careers) difficult to place and even unpleasant. The consequences of this, from a personal to a cultural level, are worth looking at:
The great peril of this reliance on categorizing is that we could miss something that lies outside our perception. There are many examples of films—like Blade Runner or The Big Lebowski—that received, at best, mixed receptions upon release, probably because they were hard to place, hard to explain.
Anyone who’s taken an introductory psychology course knows that schemas—the ability to sort out stimuli into like groups, and create new ones when required—are a fundamental developmental stage for infants. Vanderbilt cites a recent study showing that novelty can be a painful experience:
When we struggle to categorize something, we like it less. In a study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the subjects were shown a variety of “gender-ambiguous” morphed images of men and women.
One group was asked just to evaluate the attractiveness of the figure in each photo; another group was asked to first classify the people in the photos by gender, and then rate attractiveness. The first group tended to prefer faces that appeared more feminine, but the second group found all the morphed faces relatively unattractive.
The mental work of classifying hard-to-classify stimuli seemed to produce “cognitive disfluency,” and this effort, the researchers speculated, produced “negative affect that transferred to the face itself.”
We have lots of ways to describe genres: classifications, taxonomy, schemas, categories, styles, movements, trends. Many people have found their life’s work in attempting to create exhaustive and exclusive systems of organization (no item is left out, and no item fits in more than one category). The most notable are probably Linnaeus, Paul Otlet, and Melvil Dewey. The unconscious development of schemas was first theorized and described by Jean Piaget.
Further Reading in JSTOR
John Flavell provides a glowing overview of Piaget for the uninitiated:
His conception of children as active, constructive thinkers who learn only what they are structurally ready to learn has had an especially profound influence on educational thinking and practice. Indeed, it is hard to see how the contemporary field of instructional psychology would have developed as it did had there been no Piaget.
Flavell lays out some groundwork in his description of Piaget that gives us clues to adult schema and sorting functions:
The cognitive structures and processing strategies available to them at that point in [children’s] development lead them to select from the input what is meaningful to them and to represent and transform what is selected in accordance with their cognitive structures. As Piaget correctly taught us, children’s cognitive structures dictate both what they accommodate to (notice) in the environment and how what is accommodated to is assimilated (interpreted).
If children aren’t encouraged to embrace the feeling of novelty, and to figure out why it’s worth taking a risk on an unknown, the result can be a stagnant and often paranoid adulthood: seeing what one chooses to see, and reacting violently against the unavoidable new things that cause us mental pain.
Tom ter Bogt, Marc Delsing, Maarten van Zalk, Peter Christenson and Wim Meeus compare parents’ and their children’s musical tastes in Social Forces. The theory is that lifelong exposure to someone’s musical choices will influence a child’s later preferences and comfort levels:
Obviously, there are differences between the array of the artists and styles preferred by parents, whose preferences, as we have noted, tend to be grounded in their own youth, and the music popular during the child-rearing years. With this said, parents may pass on patterns of affinity for broadly defined styles of music. Thus, while their children are unlikely to adopt precisely the music, artists or bands their parents prefer, they may nonetheless acquire a taste for music within the same general style.
While this study uses four broad musical categories, rather than the 1,400 mentioned by Vanderbilt, there is still pervasive evidence that schemas get built by early and repeated exposure: the children evidenced some peer-based tastes, but more parental influence.
One of the more interesting studies about taste focuses directly on the “highbrow” sector of society. Richard Peterson and Roger Kern describe the “omnivorous” tastes of upper- and middle-class Westerners as a relatively recent phenomenon: at some point in the last 100 or so years, elitist tastes stopped being a marker of social standing. Now, it’s all about one’s embrace (and mastery) of a wide range of genres.
Peterson and Kern describe a “highbrow” as someone who likes classical and/or opera music, and claim “snobs” (highbrows who don’t also like lowbrow forms of music) are getting scarce:
As we understand the meaning of omnivorous taste, it does not signify that the omnivore likes everything indiscriminately. Rather, it signifies an openness to appreciating everything. In this sense it is antithetical to snobbishness, which is based fundamentally on rigid rules of exclusion.
A perfect example is in how newer forms of country (like the alt-country Vanderbilt opens his article with) have been gateways for a formerly disinterested swathe of people to learn about classic country:
If this indeed is the way omnivores mark symbolic boundaries, they do not embrace contemporary country music, for example, as representing how they identify themselves as do hard-core country music fans. Rather, they appreciate and critique it in the light of some knowledge of the genre, its great performers, and links to other cultural forms, lowbrow and highbrow.
Peterson and Kern suggest several reasons for the shift, most having to do with power. Perhaps, while many still people reject the unfamiliar and uncontrollable, the new “highbrow” is to try out all forms of taste. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.