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Why Do Different People Like Different Things?


The answer to why different people like different things might seem obvious: people are just different; their brains are just wired differently. And certainly there’s a lot to that, especially with evaluating complicated things like novels or other people’s personalities. But what about our reaction to new experiences that don’t fit into predefined preference categories for us–a completely new food, say, or a style of clothing, or a different kind of music? Do we learn these preferences, are they innate, or do we somehow choose them? And if we choose them, why do we make the choices we do?

Here’s a recent, trivial example from my own life: I’ve never liked black jelly beans, although I would eat them from time to time if they came mixed in with fruit-flavored jelly beans. But the other day my girlfriend, whom I admire a lot and whose tastes are so close to mine that we usually order each other’s first or second choices in restaurants, said that she loved black jelly beans.

The next time I ate a black jelly bean, I had this in mind–and it was delicious. I don’t even mean that I just had happy thoughts while eating it and enjoyed those: I mean that my sensory experience of the jelly bean was more pleasurable.

It’s a small change, something that was close to neutral for me became mildly pleasurable–but it’s interesting that the only thing that altered to effect that change was my attitude toward black jelly beans. Their chemistry and my physiology were unaltered. How much of what we like is based on what we’re thinking as we experience it?

Professor Jane Wardle of Cancer Research UK has studied one aspect of this question through children’s eating preferences, reportedly concluding that while children’s tastes in meat and fish seemed to be mostly inherited, tastes in other kinds of foods had much more to do with environment. Unless our taste buds themselves change in response to environment (which of course might be a possibility), our own thinking seems to determine a lot about our likes and dislikes.

All of which may be a huge yawn to you. If our likes are influenced by our thinking, so what? But there’s a useful lesson here: if our likes are influenced by our thinking, and if we can change our own thinking patterns by conscious choice (which we can–for instance, see articles on this site on the subject of idea repair), then apparently we can alter some of what we like and don’t like by conscious choice.

I don’t know how far this conscious influence of likes and dislikes can go, but consider the applications: enjoying a job more, preferring healthier foods, or having an easier time with unpleasant but necessary tasks. Influencing our own likes–perhaps through approaching an experience with an unusually open mindset and being willing to interpret sensory input as pleasurable whenever possible–can (it would seem) lead to greater happiness, productivity, and health.

In a way this is just another perspective on how thoughts influence emotions, and I don’t know whether for you it will be a particularly useful one or not. For me, though, a whole lot more delicious jellybeans just came into existence, and that’s not a bad thing.

Photo by Grim…

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