Why do we like the things we like? Why do we prefer certain things?
I was reading in Adam Miller’s book Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology. In the second essay, Notes on Life, Grace, and Atonement, he talks about how we allow distractions like preferences, hopes and fears remove us from the present, and that only in the present do we accept the grace that is the atonement. He further posits that we learned this pattern of judging the present moment from our family relationships which is why we can only be saved with our families. We must learn to see and then disarm these patterns in favor of living in the present moment regardless of our preferences, without fantasizing or worrying about the future or the past.
The particulars of my preferences depend on the situations in which they took shape, on the materials of time, place and circumstance out of which they were woven. Above all, the particulars of my screen were shaped by my relationships with those closest to me in my earliest years: my parents and family . . . . These tangled and co-dependent knots of familial fears and desires are what we use to screen and judge the experiences of the world.
Richard Bushman has theorized that Joseph Smith’s focus on sealing was dynastic, not romantic or sexual; he lusted for kin; if he could weave the whole human family together, he would. He viewed heaven as a network more than a kingdom (to use an analogy from Miller’s more recent book Future Mormon). Adam Miller continues (in Rube Goldberg Machines):
Pull the thread of sin and both family and body inevitably come with it. To address the unconditional character of the present moment is to address the nature of my relationship with my parents and family. To lay aside the screen of judgment and preference in favor of life is to set myself the task of unknotting the threads of fear and desire that have prevented me from unconditionally embracing my family and my family from unconditionally embracing me. . . . Liberation from the bonds of sin cannot be disentangled from the work of sorting out our family relationships.
I mean, yuck. Right?
Before he went where I didn’t want him to go, I thought he was headed in a direction I blogged about many years ago in a little post I called The Genetics of Sin in which I suggested that we focus on genealogy to comprehend our own foibles and proclivities which were originally influenced by our families. For example, temper, passive-aggressive behavior, gullibility, self-medication, and co-dependency are all traits often modeled and incubated in the walls of the family home. Apples don’t fall far from trees. Learning from these negative traits at arms length is obviously more appealing than transcending them to embrace what we don’t want to accept about ourselves and those who fostered those flaws, but the gospel is only effective if it challenges us. Otherwise, it might as well be a daily affirmation. Apparently.
Back to the original question: how do we get our preferences?
Adopted. In the case of many of our preferences, we simply adopted them from our families. Our fears and desires are the ones we are comfortable with because we have seen them modeled by family members. They feel normal. We are taught to want or fear certain things, to worry and hope in specific ways. When we marry or have close relationships with others whose fears and hopes differ from our own, we can recognize that our own preferences are largely adopted from our families (as are theirs).
Aspirational. Some of our likes are aspirational. We say we like a thing because we perceive that liking it is superior or will garner approval from those whom we wish to emulate. I want to be well-read, stylish, attractive, accepted, so I say that I like the things that those I admire like. There was an article linked on my sidebar today that said Angelina Jolie had found the perfect travel shoe, and did I like it? Yes, I did. Theoretically at least. But do I actually own any shoes like that? No. Not yet at least. Maybe I will buy some.
In a recent Atlantic interview, Julie Beck speaks with Tom Vanderbilt who wrote You May Also Like, a book about the psychology of our preferences:
Tom Vanderbilt: maybe we’re just reflecting that cultural anxiety and trying to be those people that we’re supposed to be, those better people. The key to deceiving others is the ability to deceive yourself. That helps the lie. So I create these playlists and reading lists, and I orchestrate my bookshelves very carefully to have nothing but the finest tomes. How many of those I’ve actually read is another question.
Do we like the thing or the idea of liking the thing? How do we tell the difference?
Categorization. Sometimes we can’t bring ourselves to like something because it defies categorization. Movies that are sleeper hits are often those that couldn’t reach their target audience in theaters because people weren’t sure how to market them and viewers didn’t know what to compare them to in order to know if they would like them. In essence, liking and disliking things is how we engage with the world, judging things as either “good” or “bad” from the standpoint of our own experience. When we encounter what can’t easily be sorted, we may ignore it because it defies categorization. Familiarity breeds fondness, not contempt. We like novelty, so long as it’s not too far outside our norm.
Categorization is behind a lot of our “likes,” but it’s not fool-proof either. It’s why Facebook thinks I will like peacock-print leggings (I won’t), while Amazon thinks I will like trashy Regency era fiction (I double won’t). The article calls it the Napolean Dynamite problem. Some things are hard to pin down, and people who like them may not in fact like everything else that is also hard to categorize.
Contextual Liking. The article refers to Lawnmower Beer, a beer that one likes after mowing the lawn. It’s not high quality, but when you are very thirsty and sweaty, it’s good enough to hit the spot. In a rom-com, this is similar to a rebound relationship or “not Mr. Right, but Mr. Right Now.” We like certain things because they are available to us at the right time or place. In another situation, we might not like them nearly as much.
Here in the land of the free, my preferred beverage is a fountain Diet Coke from QT with crushed ice. They blend it well. When we were hiking in Nepal, we hadn’t had a Diet Coke for days, and at the high point of our trek, we found a single expired can of Diet Coke. We had just hiked over 900 meters straight up It was about the best thing we ever had, even though it was flat and slightly warm with a silty layer of dust on the top. Context is king.
Hate Watching, Guilty Pleasures and Ironic Liking. Last weekend my sister and I binge-watched the second season of Smash. For those who haven’t seen it, spoiler alert, it blows. If you were sitting in the next room you might have thought we were watching a sporting event with particularly bad referees. Shouts of “Come on!” and “Puh-lease!” could be heard as the season progressed.
Likewise, I have read some Jane Austen knockoffs that were cringe-worthy. I’ve read a few that were really good (h/t Elizabeth Aston and Monica Fairview), but one I read resulted in this Goodreads review:
So bad. It’s like the author hates Darcy and wants to heap humiliation on him. Why not just kick him right in the nards? And Elizabeth is like the Mom in Back to the Future with some twisted Florence Nightengale fetish. Then throw in a dash of Groundhog Day. The middle of the book was tolerable I suppose. The ending involved repeating the word “persistent” enough times to justify the title. Also the image of Darcy as a devout religious man praying earnestly after his failed proposal is just inconsistent with his character and his station in life. Not buying this one at all. The love scenes with variations on the word “lip” to describe them kissing . . . puh-lease.
So why did I read it? Why not just cast it aside partway through? Vanderbilt suggests:
You can even perhaps have a kind of a pleasure that emerges from your own sense of moral superiority.
In the case of watching the second season of Smash, I think it was a mix of the elements we enjoyed (some outstanding singing) and then sharing our hatred of the bad parts (some irredeemably bad–yet somehow in this implausible fiction–Tony-award winning choreography). There was a camaraderie to our outrage and incredulity. In the case of the Austen knockoff, some of my pleasure came from knowing I could write a luxuriously scathing review of it, which I then did, and a Facebook friend of mine remarked “If I could hug this review I would.”
Guilty pleasures are a little different in that they denote some anxiety about popular preferences, particularly for women. Few men use the term “guilty pleasures,” but women apply the term to any indulgent activity like eating carbs, reading novels or shopping. Women are culturally trained to be apologetic for pleasure-seeking, to be anxious for approval by keeping “pleasures” at arm’s length with the word “guilty.” Vanderbilt expounds on this notion:
Just to segue a little bit to the concept of the guilty pleasure—this is a very interesting and complicated dynamic. I do think it has been used culturally as kind of a cudgel to try to shape people’s behavior and influence them and rein them in. You can find intimations going back to the emergence of the novel, for example, that the novel was a guilty pleasure enjoyed largely by women. I do think there has been this tendency to try to reign in guilty pleasure behavior when it comes to women. As a weird example here, if you go to a stock photo site like Shutterstock or something like that and type in the words “guilty pleasure,” what you will see is a page of women basically putting chocolate into their mouths.
Ironic liking is like hipsters going to the Spam museum. Is Spam so bad it’s good? It’s more likely in this case that one is presenting a clever self-image at the expense of under-appreciated canned meat. Over the weekend, I DVRed Reefer Madness, a 1928 film on the evils of smoking marijuana which apparently include vehicular homicide and manic piano playing. I think it’s another example of ironic liking. We like the movie, even love it; it’s a cult classic, not because it’s an excellent timeless documentary on the perils of drug use, but precisely because it’s such a great example of bygone debunked thinking. We like it, but for what it unintentionally represents. Likewise with Spam (although Spam & Cabbage was actually a college favorite of mine). We don’t like it because it’s a tasty way to enjoy pig meat byproducts, but because it’s a relic of past nutritional ideas that have largely been discredited. It’s hip to be square. These are really examples of liking something, not for its stated purpose, but for the opposite of its stated purpose. Hence, the irony.
But ironic liking may also be related to the idea that current generations are aware of the marketing targeted at them, we are in on the joke; we see behind the curtain. For example, if you watch CW shows, you know what you are going to get. There will be love triangles and love quadrangles. There will be cheesy lines and impossibly attractive characters who can’t conjugate verbs properly. It’s really just a prime time soap with a much bigger budget. Knowing that’s what’s on offer doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, but you can also laugh about it because it’s transparent and predictable.
- What do you like that you inherited from your family, but your spouse doesn’t like? When did you become aware that this was a family trait?
- What do you like ironically?
- Have you hate watched (or hate read) anything? Why do you think you did it?
- Do you think “guilty pleasures” are more relevant to women’s social conditioning (as Vanderbilt hypothesized in the interview) or universal to both sexes?
- Do you like the notion of being saved as families? How do you reconcile that with notions of individual choice and accountability?