Saturday, 3 January 2015

Why People Like What They Like

People fascinate me. Nothing fascinates me more. Sure, all of Nature is fascinating. Butterflies and thunderstorms and amethysts and spinach. It's all fascinating. But people, probably because they are the most complex and confusing of all of Nature (emphasis on the confusing) are the most fascinating.

Yes, there are mysteries at the bottom of the ocean. Gravity is anybody's guess. And who knows what lies out there beyond the reach of our biggest telescopes. Nevertheless, human beings are baffling.

I have been told many, many times I should have studied psychology. Well, in my own way, maybe I do. I people-watch. I question, I ponder. Human behaviour gives me plenty to "do" no matter where I am, and after much consideration (you have no idea how much), I've chosen a book on this topic to be the one I publish this year, so when that happens you'll all be pestered to help me market it.

However, there is one aspect of human behaviour that I find the most interesting of all, and that's preferences. Why you like what you like.

Sometimes the reason is obvious. Frequently we like something that we encounter because it makes us think of something we already like. That seems to be normal. It also seems to be harmless, but unfortunately it isn't.

1. It's a strategy used by people who want us to like things. Vodka that tastes of chocolate bars appeals to the youngest buyers. This is quite deliberate, and in my considered opinion, quite unethical.

Even t-shirts sold at high prices for no reason whatsoever other than that they have a logo on the front of our favourite bands/TV shows/games/movies/literary character is getting into a grey area of business ethics. Nevertheless an entire industry has grown up around selling clothing at many times the usual price for this reason. It works. People will pay it, and caveat emptor.

2. This is a type of positive prejudice, and right there, if you turn it around, is a dark side. If it is possible to instantly like a person, simply because they remind you of another person you once liked, even if the resemblance is totally physical and therefore superficial, then, by the same process it is possible to instantly dislike a person, simply because they remind you of another person you once disliked, even if the resemblance is totally physical and therefore superficial. I've seen that in action, and it's horrible.

Sometimes, of course, it can be amusing.

(More here:

How powerful is that? Don't know. More research necessary.

How often does it happen at some deep subconscious level? Hmm.

Here's an example. I recently saw a bookcover that reminded me of another bookcover, a book I loved as a child. In a beautiful example of a cliché manifesting, I decided I wanted to read this book based simply on that. I judged it by its cover, oh yes.

We do that actual thing a lot by the way, which is why packaging is so important, but before we get into that, let's look at nostalgia a bit more.

I mentioned once (was it here or elsewhere? Don't remember, I write all over the place) how I personally find it truly bizarre (and therefore utterly fascinating) how people can like something they don't really like because it reminds them of the "good old days". (When were they, by the way?)

My daughter loves the smell of dirty, used engine oil. YEUK. Why? Because it's how Daddy smelled when she was a little girl. He changed his career in her teens and comes home smelling differently now, and she's all grown up anyway, so that time in her life is gone. It reminds her of being hugged on Daddy's lap and feeling very safe. Nostalgia.

Personally I hated that smell then and still do, plus I hate how he smells after work now too. I love my husband very much but I prefer him after a shower.

So you may ask then, what smell of childhood whisks me back? I have no memory of being hugged on anyone's lap, ever. So there's no smell to take me there. Don't get the idea that I was some deprived child, I just didn't need hugs and laps, my happy safe place was up a tree. Do I love the smell of trees? I suppose so, never really thought about it.

Clearly, this is not a universal phenomenon.

HOWEVER, if I smell slightly damp cupboards mixed with soap powder (yes really) THAT whisks me back to my Aunt's house, and all the toy cars she let me play with. Do I like that smell? Not especially, but I can think of worse. Get the toy cars out!

My point here is that even with the well-known "memory by smell" effect, everyone is different, and that is the fascinating part. There are patterns, but there are exceptions, and then there are patterns in the exceptions, and on and on and on. And I keep wondering, why, why, why.

The last reason for liking something that is easily explained is because we've been taught to like it.

Familiarity. Expectations. Conditioning. Grooming. Yep, see that last one? There's always a dark side to all and any of this. Brainwashing.

I'm a bit of a free spirit*, I tend to have unusual tastes, and therefore I often get asked why I like things that most people don't, or vice versa. I can't explain it any more than anyone else can, but when I turn it around and ask them why they like what they like, I often see people discover, as they think it through, that it's all based around familiarity, a sort of comfort zone of taste. It can can be very interesting and revealing, therefore, instead of just saying "I like that", to really TRY to think why that is.

In other words, as I've often suggested...are your preferences really your own? Are you sure?

The fact that we have a multi-billion dollar international advertising industry says "NO". So on that note I'll return tomorrow.

(The aim is to completely mess with your head by the end of the week :) )

*I like to make understatements.


  1. Love it--a most excellent theme for a book. It should prove to be (f)rightfully insightful. The anticipation may get to us all. ;) ~ Blessings! :)

  2. Really interesting post. Can't wait for the book.