We all like things: a particular band, or a preferred author. We have a favorite food, and a best friend. Having a preference is such a basic element of who we are that it was the first thing you were allowed to do on Facebook — to “like” something.
How we determine these likes is less clear.
Hence our question: Why do we like what we like?
Related questions: What does it mean to like something? How do we change our likes? Why do we dislike what we dislike?
5 thoughts on “Why Do We Like What We Like?”
Sure, genetics, childhood nurturance, culture, experience, and rebellion during our formative years play a role in what we like. But I want to focus on some less talked about determinants of why we enjoy what we enjoy: anatomical superpowers, aspirations to be more like our heroes, and ideas that hit us as so profound that we spend a lifetime (or very long time) exploring their truths.
First, let’s explore anatomical superpowers. Some people, for example, have bodies made for running. One day they run, all goes well, and it makes them feel happy. They run some more, get better at it, enter races, and win some medals. If all that keeps them happy, they continue testing and improving what began as an unknown anatomical superpower.
I have an anatomical superpower. My tastebuds and nerve receptors on the roof of my mouth are especially attuned to the pleasures of dark chocolate. Give me some good quality dark chocolate, I put it in my mouth, and a calm, yet somewhat energetic bliss washes over my body. Since learning about my love of dark chocolate, my pleasure for run-of-the- mill milk chocolate has fallen, and I have learned to like quality dark chocolate I suppose like some people become experts at tasting fine wines. But none of this — none — would have been possible without the especially attuned taste buds and nerve receptors on the roof of my mouth that give me the relaxing bliss that quality dark chocolate seems to be made for.
Next, let’s look at aspiring to be more like our heroes. I have aspirations to be like many of my heroes. For instance, I want to possess the command of the English language that Bono from the band of U2 has. It seems like 90% of the time the man opens his mouth, beautiful and inspiring words come out. (The other 10% make him sound like the pretentious prick some people are certain he is.) Anyhow, I wish I had his command for inspiration.
Another one of my heroes is agrarian writer and poet, Wendell Berry. He too has a way with words. And his words line up well with the way he lives his life. Wendell Berry is concerned about many things in today’s world. One thing in particular, because of his essays, makes me aspire to be more like him — the need to be more involved with food production.
Food was once a major part of our culture. Yet we’ve given this part of who we are over to industry. And with that, few of us know where our food comes from.
I’ve been a gardener for most of my life. So, I’ve been involved in food production, in a small way, for quite some time. However, as the years go on, I want to weave this practice more into my life. And I started feeling this way a little over 20 years ago, when one of my political science professors turned me on to Berry’s essays.
Being more like Wendell Berry makes me feel proud. I like feeling proud.
Lastly, some time ago I ran across a scientific truth that changed how I wanted to look at the world: much of what’s in front of us, we see but don’t register. We fail to commit it to memory. And thus in many cases, we fail to understand and appreciate the world as much as we could. We certainly miss out on much of the beauty surrounding us.
This idea — that we fail to fully see what right in front of us — has led to a passion for taking pictures of vegetation in my garden. But it goes further than that. I love taking pictures of the details of the vegetation. So I get real close up. The “veins” of leaves, the ripples in some flowers, the droplets of water on a plant after the rain — these things amaze me. But I wouldn’t be aware of much of this is I didn’t plunge my eyes right next to a plant to discern, “Is this a picture waiting to be taken?”
A little aside: my wife hates it when I think I see something I want to take a photo of, but I haven’t yet changed from spiffy, work clothes to garden attire. What can I say? I really, really like to catch a great photo.
So there you have it. Anatomical superpowers, aspirations to be more like our heroes, and ideas that hit us as so profound that we spend a lifetime exploring their truths — these are just three of the reasons I like what I like.
I say we like what we like based on a mix of biology and identity formation. Biology conditions us to be attracted or repelled by certain things in our environment; even when it doesn’t make sense anymore, like be attracted to high-calorie foods or being repelled by people in the “out group.” Identity formation is interesting when you realize the specifically human way to think is in words. From the point we first learn language, we begin literally narrating a story too ourselves about ourselves. We create a narrative that doesn’t just describe who we are — it is who we are. Change our internal narrative and you change our identity. As one example, when any of us steps back and takes a close look at how many of our personal choices conform to the groups we most identify with and/or aspire to be a part of, it’s impossible to not see the careful internal monitoring to make sure the choices we make line us up with the groups that help to short-hand who we are. This can be both good and bad, but I find it helpful to be aware of it.
I think much (though not all) of what we like is based on how we were raised. Take food for example. I have noticed that picky eaters are, more often than not, raised by picky eaters. If a parent won’t eat a certain food, their child will usually refuse it also, even if they have never tried it. Adventurous eaters have children who, at least, try new foods and often have more diverse diets.
Who we choose to spend our time with also affects why we like what we like as well. When our peers gravitate towards certain music, activities and behaviors we tend to follow, seeking out new people who like similar things. I think it is mostly our environment that affects why we like what we like
There’s no doubt that how you were raised contributes to your preferences. For example, children will often adopt the same religious views as their parents.
But surely there’s more to it than that. For example. I love science and science fiction and have ever since I was a young boy. However, there are no scientists anywhere in my family, nor did I have any more contact with science or scientists than any other child. Why did I gravitate toward that? Where did that interest come from?
Cecily, were your parents gardeners? Is that where your love of gardening comes from?
Lee, I certainly agree with you that we don’t get all of our preferences for what we like or not from how we are raised. I have a son who is vegetarian, even though he wasn’t exposed to vegetarianism through family and friends. He made that decision based on his own research and choices. I do think that we are greatly influenced by what we are exposed to as young children, though some of our likes are developed through our personal experiences and natural tastes.
And, yes, my father was a hydroponic gardener and raised our own meat and my mother grew flowers. Also, my grandparents and great grandparents were potato farmers.