by Danièle Todorov
We pick from a dozen entrée options, a couple hundred Netflix movies, or thousands of grocery store products by referencing our intuitive tastes. Or so we think. Tom Vanderbilt delves into the near-irrationality of our preferences in You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.
For each of the experts featured in Tom Vanderbilt’s You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, the most baffling phrase in common language is “it’s an acquired taste.” Countless questions spring from that one little word “acquired.” The driving forces behind taste are chaotic and seemingly lawless, continuously evolving with age and context. When did my revulsion for olives and anchovies morph into a pseudo-sophisticated appreciation? Where did the change begin, in the reward center of the brain or in the nervous network of the gut? Was the desire to eat those abhorred foods social, visceral, or pretentious? All of us working in nutrition hold some ideas about the origin and evolution of taste and may subscribe to a single explanation. So brace yourselves. You May Also Like is packed with evidence for a dozen conflicting theories. Ironically, Vanderbilt states “what is taste, really, but a kind of cognitive mechanism for managing sensory overload?”
As a freelance journalist in design, science, and technology, Tom Vanderbilt draws expertise from a similarly diverse cast of researchers in You May Also Like, from the flavor chemists at McCormick pimping our snacks, to the mathematicians at Netflix keeping us hooked. Vanderbilt’s research is extensive and holistic. Interestingly, the same set of human behaviors are at play in almost every field. I found his discussions of Facebook likes and music preference to be equally as informative for nutrition as the chapter on food choice. While this diversity keeps the book engaging and fresh (a nod to our constant novelty seeking), space constraints often keep Vanderbilt from providing satisfying explanations. You May Also Like serves better as an introduction for readers interested in interdisciplinary behavioral research than an in-depth resource.
You May Also Like offers a condensed snapshot of our current understanding of taste and leaves readers questioning and obsessed with its core ideas. After reading this book, I am certain about only two things. First, I will never use the phrases “acquired taste” or “I’ll have what she’s having” without hearing the gears turn in my subconscious. Second, ask any of the book’s featured experts—honestly—why we like what we like, and you’ll receive an answer with a slightly embarrassed shrug.
Danièle Todorov is a first-year Nutritional Epidemiology student who should not be trusted with matters of taste, given how much she enjoyed The Museum of Bad Art in Somerville.