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If Your Musical Taste Changed, Would You Still Feel Like You?

Recent findings show the importance of aesthetic preferences for who we are.

Key points

  • People perceive some features as essential to their identity and others as optional.
  • Research suggests that people consider their preferences for music, art, and literature to be essential to who they are.
  • Nevertheless, aesthetic preferences sometimes change quickly and without people noticing.

When we think of ourselves, some of our features seem optional. They could have been otherwise; it would not have changed anything. If I was not able to wiggle my ears, this would not make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things. This is a contingent feature of mine.

But some other features we don’t take to be optional. These features are essential to who we are. And there are experimental ways of separating the essential and the optional features of our self-image. Study participants are asked odd questions such as these: “Imagine that tomorrow you wake up much smarter than you are now. Or much less smart. Would that still be you? Or imagine that you wake up kinder, or skinnier, or a Republican, or less interested in yoga. Would that still be you?”

A recent version of this experiment yielded some surprising results. These studies have shown that we all consider our preferences with regards to art, music, and literature to be surprisingly essential. Our taste in food and clothing is not far behind.

When faced with an imagined scenario in which we wake up and our musical taste is the exact opposite of what it used to be, most of us say that that would not be us anymore, but a completely different person. We tend to consider our taste in music to be a more important part of who we are than our moral, political, or even religious views.

This is a surprising and significant finding on its own. But it is even more surprising and significant if we put it together with another strand of empirical research on the way aesthetic preferences actually change.

Aesthetic preferences change surprisingly quickly and often without us noticing. According to some recent findings aesthetic preferences are the most stable in middle-aged people and they are much more fluid in younger and, somewhat surprisingly, older age groups. But even the aesthetic preferences of people in the most stable age group undergo at least one major change as often as every two weeks in an aesthetic domain they really care about.

The reasons for this are also well-understood. One major trigger for our change in taste is the mere exposure effect: The more you are exposed to something, the more you tend to like it. Just the mere exposure to something changes your preferences. And this happens even if you are not aware of what you are exposed to.

So, we get the following picture: On the one hand, we take our aesthetic preferences not only to be stable, but also as something that defines who we are. On the other hand, our aesthetic preferences change remarkably quickly. So what we take to be one of our most essential features, our taste in music, films, books, is in fact fluid and constantly changing. This is one of the many, many ways in which we can be completely wrong about our own mind.

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