Monday, December 22, 2008

Accounting for Taste

Psychology Today takes a look at what our taste in books, music, art, and other areas says about who we are as individuals. I'm not so sure I buy into this, but it's always fun to try to see where we fit in different typologies.

I think, as is true in most synthetic typologies, that I am little bit of each one. Certainly the "self medicater" one is partly me, as is the art as social statement stance, and bits of the others. Anyway, it's a fun article so give it a read.
Accounting for Taste

Our choices in books, movies, music, and art go to the core of who we are. What your tastes reveal about you.

By: Eriq Gardner, Jay Dixit

Michaela was a strong, confident woman who loved mainstream contemporary pop. Her boyfriend was a fan of electronic dance music. When the two had been together for a few months, they decided to take a road trip to Philadelphia so he could meet her parents. The problem was that Michaela's boyfriend was driving—and thus controlling the radio. "I hated his taste in music," she recalls. "It was weird and rattled my nerves." Meanwhile, he was bored by her favorite music. Each felt their artistic choices were superior—and both were convinced of the rightness of their own opinion. They couldn't agree, and soon they were in a terrible fight. They never did make it to Philadelphia—and their relationship didn't last much longer, either.

Arguing about taste is as fundamental as having it in the first place. We take for granted that different people enjoy different things—and that others feel as confident in their judgments as we do in ours.

Our choices in books, music, art, and design go to the core of who we are. "Taste can offer us a doorway into people's lives," says Sam Gosling, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You. "Taste reveals a lot about what someone values and needs to fill their life with meaning."

We consume books, movies, music, and visual art primarily to fulfill the internal emotional needs that are fundamental to our personalities. But we also make choices about art based on a desire to carve out identities for ourselves—to articulate the stories of our lives. By the same token, we look for those stories in others. We also feel intuitively that we can judge others by their tastes. Unfortunately, those judgments are often wrong—largely because we pay attention to the wrong things. It pays to learn how to spot the real clues.

The taste hunters

Even as a child, John Darnielle's appetite for exploring music was insatiable. He'd spend hours in the garage rooting through jazz records, teaching himself to play the songs on his guitar. Like many who seek out a wide range of art at a young age, Darnielle continued to be artistically open-minded throughout his adulthood. Today, as lead singer in the indie-rock band The Mountain Goats, he still seeks out new music, often listening to five or six genres a day. "The music I'm least interested in is the type I'm capable of making myself," says Darnielle. "I want to be in awe."

Darnielle is high in openness, the characteristic of creative, curious, and imaginative people. Such people tend to be taste hunters—constantly sampling new music, scouring movie reviews for undiscovered gems, and visiting art museums. Their curiosity drives them to explore the world in search of novelty.

The living spaces of highly open people contain more books, CDs, and DVDs—and their collections are more eclectic—than their less open counterparts, Gosling has found. They enjoy discovering new artistic material and influencing the tastes of others. "Individuals who rate high in openness tend to be more adventurous in taste," says Jason Rentfrow, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge. "As they grow older, they will allocate more time and money trying to be as omnivorous as they can."

Highly open people are also far more likely to become artists themselves, according to a BBC survey of 90,000 people. "Openness correlates to a great range of tastes," explains Stephen Dollinger, a psychologist at Southern Illinois University. "These individuals are more cultured and have a greater conception of what makes great and interesting art."

Less open people, meanwhile, may be stuck on the tastes of their youth, watching nostalgic movies on Nick at Night and listening to classic rock.

The thrill seekers

Sarah Angelmar grew up in Fontainebleu, the stuffy Parisian suburb where French kings used to spend their summers. As an extroverted, highly social girl in a historic but boring town, she spent her nights dreaming of going to America and hitting it big as a pop star.

She chose Madonna as her role model, writing out all her lyrics and singing and dancing in homemade versions of her music videos. "Madonna expressed the lust and emotional drama of a young woman's life," recalls Angelmar. Today, as a fashion executive in New York City, Angelmar still looks for sensory pleasure in the art she consumes. "My favorite books, art, music, and everything have always been very colorful, beautiful, and sensual," she observes.

The sensation-seeking style Angelmar embodies is a hallmark of extroverts—lively, active, social people who crave sensory excitement in the art they seek out. You don't have to be a sensation seeker to be an extrovert, but it helps. "They're bored without high levels of stimulation," explains Gosling. "They love the bright lights and hustle and bustle, and they like to take risks and seek thrills."

Extroverts' lust for sensation draws them to action-adventure movies and music videos, but also leaves them bored by game shows and news programs, according to a study at University of Lleida in Spain. They watch less TV than most, preferring the spontaneity and excitement of face-to-face social encounters, but their need for constant sensory or intellectual stimulation means they tend to leave the TV on while engaging in other activities such as reading, eating, or even cuddling.

Sensation seekers are also particularly drawn to pornographic and horror films. In one study, subjects viewed a 20-minute segment of Friday the 13th. Sensation-seeking people didn't just enjoy the movie more; they actually salivated more, indicating higher levels of alertness and cognitive processing.

Extroverts are also drawn to art with "sensational elements"—wild colors, forceful action, and themes of sex or violence—such as paintings depicting war, castration, or rapture. Thus, extroverts might be drawn to the aggressive drip paintings of Jackson Pollack or the chaos and suffering depicted in Picasso's Guernica. "Most people have a bias toward the familiar, preferring pleasant, realistic art to abstract or surreal art," explains Jennings Bryant, a psychologist at Indiana University, "but sensation seekers' attraction to novelty and emotionally arousing, even unpleasant, themes make them more ready to accept modern art and unpleasant themes in art and photographs."

Another hallmark of extroversion is the need to connect with others, which drives extroverts to rock concerts, dance clubs, and movie theaters—environments that are both highly social and highly stimulating. That's also why extroverts particularly enjoy music with vocals. "They're drawn to the human voice," explains Gosling. "They want to connect."

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