Taste and Categorization

We Love to Categorize

Tom Vanderbilt examines the problem of taste in his book: “You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice”. He examines the way taste matters in modern life, especially business. He discusses food, music, art, beer…. He details such things as how recommendation agents work to suggest a new movie on Netflix etc…

He notes that we like to copy other people. This makes sense — if someone else is doing it then it probably can’t be that bad. This allows for some discussion over what exactly taste is and how it changes and develops over time. What does it mean to have taste and how does taste diverge between groups?

Categorization Not Just A Tool, Also A Problem

One of the most interesting parts of the book was his extensive description of cat shows. There is clearly something going on; there is a system for grading cats that seems to make sense to cat people. That said I must confess to a certain unease especially when the discussion comes to owner based taste decisions that aren’t in the best interests of the health of the cat. People seem to think that some breeds should look like something in particular and then judge them on whether they achieve the goal. This seems like a problem to me. In order to add some sort of objectivity to a subjective process we need to decide what makes for a “good cat”. Cats are well known for not caring what people think and I have to say in this situation they are certainly correct, why do we know what makes for a “good cat”.

Expertise In Matters of Taste

Vanderbilt discusses the idea of expert judgement which is a relatively challenging concept in matters of taste. “What makes a good judge? Confidence for one. An expert, in Shanteau’s view, is someone good at convincing others he or she is an expert. Good judges may make small errors, but they will “generally avoid large mistakes.” When they encounter exceptions, experts are good at making”single-case deviations in their decision patterns.” Novices, meanwhile, tend to stick stubbornly to the rules, even when they are inappropriate.” (Vanderbilt, 2014).

To Vanderbilt expertise is exhibited by someone who tells you they are an expert. I perhaps share this slight hostility to experts in matters of taste. Experts should have to show you objectively why they are experts and it is hard to do this when taste varies. That said, varied tastes makes the world interesting and if experts want to discuss this important part of human life I guess that isn’t a terrible thing.

Read: Tom Vanderbilt (2014) You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, Random house.