By Eriq Gardner, Jay Dixit, published on September 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
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.
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."
Introverts, meanwhile—those reserved, thoughtful, self-reliant types who draw their energy from spending time by themselves—tend to take a contemplative, critical approach to art and music. For them, form is more important than emotional expression, according to research by the late University College London psychologist Cyril Burt. Whereas extroverts enjoy sensational art, introverts prefer more contemplative music with highly developed formal elements, like the mathematical symmetries of Bach fugues or the technical complexity of Debussy or Chopin. And when it comes to film, introverts are suckers for character development—think Taxi Driver, Harold and Maude, and Lost in Translation.
Jason Ozick's parents divorced when he was 5, and he was an anxious, moody child. When his father picked him up for their weekends together, it was Ozick who chose the music they listened to in the car, playing artists like Portishead and Elliott Smith. "He used to always accuse me of picking 'mood music,' " he recalls.
When he listens to those songs now, he says, he feeds off the raw emotions, imagining himself singing them onstage. "I still listen to a lot of music that's emotional," he says. "I listen to a musician and identify with what he's going through."
People high in neuroticism—less emotionally stable people who are anxious, sensitive, and easily upset—tend to be artistically creative and gravitate toward emotionally turbulent art, including films, songs, and literature often seen as romantic, according to Burt's research. They decorate their living spaces with inspirational posters bearing messages like, "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference," or, "Until you spread your wings, you'll never know how far you can fly." These self-affirmations help neurotic people manage their tendency to worry and become blue, explains Gosling. "The posters are a visual form of self-medication."
Neurotics use art to regulate their moods in the same way. When feeling sad, they may be inclined to wallow in their misery by choosing melancholic music, movies, or books. Or, they may choose uplifting art to boost their mood. "Neurotics are more likely to focus on content rather than structure," explains Adrian Furnham, a psychologist at University College London.
Neurotic souls may be onto something. There's reason to believe consuming art is a highly effective strategy for regulating internal states. As Woody Allen put it: "I can't listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland." Viewing art for 40 minutes reduced stress as effectively as 5 hours of postwork decompression, according to a study measuring levels of the stress hormone cortisol among London office workers. And a study of people in 30 countries showed that the most popular method for reducing stress was listening to music—ranking just above watching TV and taking a bath. (Having sex came in sixteenth, and consulting a psychologist placed last.)
The highly neurotic also use art to validate their feelings of sadness, anger, and alienation. Neurotic people are more likely, for instance, to enjoy rap and heavy metal. "Listening to aggressive styles of music... might feel cathartic," explains Rentfrow. "It lets them know there are others out there who feel similarly, and that it's OK to rage."
At the other end of the stability spectrum, even-tempered, easygoing, and optimistic people prefer classical art such as baroque architecture. They respond to art that emphasizes form over feeling and have the emotional stability to appreciate unity and formalistic detail. "I'm liable to feel panicked and I find it easy to lose my cool," says author and philosopher Alain De Botton. "I'm attracted to monastic environments and also minimalism. It's easy to imagine that someone who is the opposite is seduced by ornate detail."
Art as decoration
Hillary Nagy grew up the oldest child in her family, graduated from the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy, and went on to a career as a high-powered marketing executive in New York City. She's equally achievement-oriented at home, working hard to make sure all the elements of her decor work in concert. "I'm always thinking about how I can tie together one of our bedrooms," she says. "I go through countless iterations of what would be best."
She tends toward figurative art that realistically depicts the things she enjoys in real life, such as beaches and palm trees. To her, the purpose of art is to decorate her living spaces and keep things looking "aesthetically nice." But she doesn't seek out, explore, or engage art. "This sounds sad, but I'm not really passionate about anything right now," she admits. "I innately look to others for their reactions as I'm looking to discover my opinion."
Nagy clearly fits the profile of a highly conscientious person—dependable, focused, task-oriented people who enjoy order and rules. These people don't enjoy art for emotional regulation or intellectual engagement. Instead, they view art as an external commodity, useful for improving the aesthetics of their living spaces or for relating to people who are truly interested in it. "Those high in conscientiousness may see art as an extrinsic element in their lives rather than an intrinsic one to explore," explains Dollinger.
The conscientious tend to prefer conventional art to modern paintings or other abstract art, and often approach music from an aesthetic distance, with a cold, logical point of view. They tend to focus on the technical proficiency of the artist or the market value of the work rather than on their own emotional reactions. "Conscientious individuals to some extent are the opposite of artistic, intuitive, and imaginative people and may therefore be more likely to experience art in rational ways," explains Furnham.
One of the most surprising findings in the field of taste research is that artistic preferences have a strong genetic component. A study of 3,000 twins, for instance, revealed that whether we like jazz or not is partially heritable. Other artistic tastes may also be influenced by genetics.
That is not to say that there is a gene for liking jazz music the way there are genes for eye color or sickle cell anemia. What may be inherited, though, are particulars of personality and aspects of intelligence that influence enjoyment of certain forms of art.
That differences in taste attitudes are heritable stands to reason, given that personality itself is partly genetically determined. The difference between someone who loves torture movies like Saw and someone who loves Pablo Neruda poems may come down to a difference in inherited brain chemistry. The former may be driven to sensation-seeking; the latter may have a more introverted mind that delights in contemplative thought.
Cognitive ability, another factor that influences taste, is also partly genetic. We inherit such capacities as attentional focus, memory, and speed and depth of associative thinking. These skills may help a person understand—and therefore appreciate—the complex and spontaneous nature of jazz, free verse, improv comedy, and other art forms that require mental flexibility.
Intelligence may play yet another role. Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, proposes that intelligent people may be more likely to acquire evolutionarily novel tastes—that is, a predilection for things that did not exist 10,000 years ago, such as instrumental music. Intelligence, however, may make no difference in the acquisition of evolutionarily familiar tastes, such as vocal music. In addition, Kanazawa suggests, less intelligent people may be less cognizant that people in TV and movies are not real. Since seeing realistic images of people may, for them, seem almost like being with people, they're more likely to enjoy these art forms and spend time consuming them.
Taste is a social act
Today, Giovanni Escalera is the composer and guitarist for the electronic-rock band Sweet Electra. But growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, he was, he says, a "chubby, weird teenager." When he was 13, he undertook a transformation, turning himself into someone others would notice. He began sporting black eye makeup and a fake ear-piercing—emblems of the bands he loved—and boning up on the hottest punk, new wave, and electronic music at the local record store.
"My friends' mothers would ask me, 'Why are you wearing earrings? Those are for girls!'" he recalls. But Escalera wanted to demonstrate his allegiance to the aesthetic he identified with. By advertising his love for foreign bands whose new sound spoke to him, he hoped to convey his open-minded personality, taking a trait he was proud of and amplifying it so that it was visible to others. Steering his friends to new music they otherwise would not have been aware of reinforced his sense of being cool and ahead of the curve.
In a sense, Escalera was using his taste-hunting abilities to forge an identity. This is the inmost layer of taste formation—using our artistic choices to articulate the story of our lives for ourselves and others. Identity comprises not just the traits that describe us, but also stories about how we became that way, and how we present ourselves to others, explains Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University. Tastes are among the primary ingredients in these personal stories. "Tastes come up in people's narratives as a way of signaling who they are," says McAdams.
Taste provides an objective, common reference point. Expressing artistic preferences allows us to signal elements of our personalities, and these cues help us manage others' impressions of us. When you meet a stranger, you don't know much about her personality, but if you both agree a certain song is sad and she then tells you she loves it, you've learned something about her. "People largely agree on the emotional qualities of taste objects," explains Rentfrow.
If our taste preferences reflect our personalities, does this mean we can accurately judge others based on their tastes? We all form impressions based on people's artistic choices, confident that we can judge their personalities based on the things they love. But decoding people based on taste is not an exact science.
Personality types are not mutually exclusive—most of us are a complex combination of many traits. An open-minded taste hunter, for instance, may also have an extrovert's need to seek sensation. No one trait wholly determines our tastes—various overlapping personality traits each exert an influence, as do cognitive abilities like language mastery and overall intelligence. Combined with experiences and exposure, the result is the infinite variety of preferences we see.
We make judgments about others' tastes based on stereotypes, explains Gosling; we assume fans of mainstream popular artists are uncreative and conventional, for instance, or that fans of energetic vocal music are gregarious and sociable.
Some stereotypes are correct. When Gosling asks his students to list their top 10 favorite songs, other students are able to match lists to students with impressive accuracy. Rock fans truly are less friendly, conservative, and religious, and more artistic and anxious than fans of religious music. We assume classical music fans are friendly, conscientious, and emotionally stable—and for the most part, we're right.
People judging others based on Facebook profiles, which typically include catalogues of favorite books, music, and movies—are able to accurately predict openness and extroversion, but not emotional stability, Gosling has found. And our stereotypes about fans of heavy metal, electronic, pop, rap, and soul are considerably less accurate, perhaps because inaccurate racial assumptions cloud our judgment.
Another reason our judgments falter is that we focus on the wrong cues. We wrongly assume, for instance, that people with highly decorated and cluttered rooms are more extroverted. We also assume such people are more open—when really we should be looking for variety in books and music, for books on art and poetry, and for art supplies. We assume that rooms with stale air belong to emotionally unstable people—when really we should be scanning for inspirational posters.
In the end, then, perhaps we should view the differences in tastes between us and others not as grounds for disagreement, but as opportunities for interpersonal revelation. Perhaps the Romans were right when they proclaimed, "De gustibus non est disputandum." About matters of taste, there can be no argument.