A bowl of Smarties; one is a different colour

A tasteful interview with Tom Vanderbilt

Gerry Gaffney Uncategorized Leave a Comment

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast.

I first spoke to today’s guest on release of his New York Time’s best seller “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)” way back in 2009. He’s written for a range of publications. He’s a contributing editor of Wired, Outside and Artforum.

His latest book explores the fascinating topic of taste. It’s called You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.

Tom Vanderbilt, welcome back to the User Experience podcast.

Tom Vanderbilt:

It’s my pleasure. Great to be with you.

Gerry:

You write towards the end of the book; “The picture of taste I have presented is hardly reassuring.” Were you aware when you embarked on this project what a can of worms you were about to open?

Tom:

[Laughs.] That’s a great question and I’m not quite sure I was fully… you know there is a very famous cliché “There is no accounting for taste” which should stand as a huge warning sign to anyone, you know, going in to that and there are some other trails that had been pursued prior to my project in which people were basically, you know, saying, describing the difficulties so, yeah it’s a huge unfinished project, like “Traffic” itself is and human behaviour behind the wheel. I mean my book didn’t really change anything. Hopefully it might have enlightened a few people but these are ongoing things so yeah, I mean, I’m fully willing to accept and even perhaps celebrate the idea that you know I may have just raised more questions than I’ve answered in the end.

Gerry:

Yeah, and it seems that the annals of sort of philosophical writing, that a lot of people have just thrown their hands up in the end and basically come around to that no accounting for it.

Tom:

Yeah I mean you can read Hume’s famous essay on taste from several hundred years ago and, you know, really grappling with the same sorts of issues, obviously a different range of media and references he was referring to but you know sort of coming back to the same sorts of circularity and you know who’s to say what we like, well it’s the best judges. Who are the best judges? The ones who have the best criteria. What are the best criteria? You know there’s endless circularity and that to me was why, it was sort of so fun in a way to read Hume and then you know go through the reviews on a site like Amazon, and a lot of people will criticise the quality of those reviews but to my mind it was fascinating the way we all sort of deal with those issues Hume was dealing with, even those of us who are not professional philosophers, just trying to express how we actually feel about something and coming against some of the same limitations and seeing these sort of you know… people’s user-generated comments on Amazon often approaching the question of taste in reviewing something like a novel and being a little bit afraid to actually broach the subject and saying; “Well this might be just my taste but I really liked this. You may not like this.” And sort of not wanting to open that can of worms of well whether you can ever agree this was objectively a great book or is it really just a subjective matter of taste? So yeah these are the sorts of things that are, I opened myself up to.

Gerry:

And just talking about Amazon recommendations and the like, you write in the book that you were crestfallen when the Netflix vice president of product innovation told you that they had “de-emphasised ratings predictions”. Are our “likes” and our favourites and our thumbs-up just a waste of time?

Tom:

I mean on a place like Netflix they have definitely declined in importance and I’m someone who always you know was very rigorous about that and I, far from being suspicious about rhythms I was really hoping that they could help me manage my own kind of, just in terms of almost sort of record keeping, trying to keep, you know in the old days maybe I would write this down or, but you know, what I have seen, what I have liked that would help me point to the things I like. But yeah they’ve de-emphasised because with that instant availability of streamed material people are no longer taking the sort of, you know careful time to articulate a decision because you don’t need to you know train Netflix about the next DVD that you’re going to get a week down the road because there’s something always waiting around the corner that you can just jump into so that sort of “all you can eat” behaviour is much different than the kind of articulated behaviour. So you know but let’s just say behaviour has probably become more important than stated “likes” which are open to much more you know sort of bias and our own desire to occasionally, you know, self-enhance, which I am certainly guilty of.

Gerry:

Yeah and you talk about people saying they like, you know, art-house movies and foreign movies and documentaries but the fact that, I think you quote somebody again at Netflix talking about the fact that Al Gore’s, I can’t remember the name of it, the movie that stayed on people’s tables for, when it was on DVD format, for weeks on end “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Tom:

Yeah and this is the problem with a lot of these sites and our own makeup in general is that we are, we often contain multitudes, right? I may have this sort of idealised canon in my head of books that I want to read and they indeed are sitting on my night table but every night I don’t necessarily reach for those. I may want to mix it up a little bit and reach for something that’s a bit of a genre departure, let’s say, and you know do I want that to become the entirety of my taste profile? No, I mean, so you know it is this mix where you’re trying to put you know sort of oil and water together at times and this is where algorithms really run out of usefulness because, you know, at one extreme is called the overfitting problem, where things are just too perfect a recommendation. If I read a number of books and then it just points me to a book that I probably already know about, because it’s very similar to the one that I’ve read, that doesn’t really help us out either but on the other hand if my tastes are wildly eclectic where you know how do you even know or how can you even guess where to point someone? So this is a very, trying to turn this into a mathematical equation is very difficult work at the end of the day.

Gerry:

Yeah and I guess once we relying on algorithms we’re sort of walking away from the serendipity that can be so delightful when we discover something thatw perhaps not to our taste or generally wouldn’t be to our taste but we stumble across it or somebody gives us something or you know we just pick something kind of at random and that’s really missing isn’t it when we start to I guess mechanise and automate these sorts of processes?

Tom:

Yeah and I would say that is still a huge part of my life just the personal recommendation, and I think this points to you know the status of humans as the ultimate social learning beings on the planet. I mean no species looks to its fellow, you know, species members to learn from, to make decisions. I mean there are some fascinating experiments by Michael Tomasello at the Max Planck Institute about giving monkeys a plastic box and they will figure out the better solution. Have humans do it, they’ll sort of do what the experimenter is doing, no matter whether it’s the best solution or not. We just seem to look to other people to make decisions. So I’m constantly canvassing my friends you know for possible recommendations. I have been introduced to things that, music for example that I really love to this day that were just random things like Vin Scelsa here in the United States, just these sort of freeform FM DJs who, you know, it wasn’t focus grouped, it wasn’t algorithmically derived, it was just someone, you know and often this is a challenge, it is hard to get people to make that journey with you and this is, to go back to some of these algorithmic things, this is even a problem those services have, a place like Pandora, you know you may lose a lot of people if you are playing you know with one group and the next decision, the next group is something that may only have the most tangential relationship but it’s from an entirely different genre, entirely different country. I mean this is, a lot of us don’t have the patience to go that way.

Gerry:

Yeah. When you talk about patience, many people have commented on the fact that, you know, back in the day when we had vinyl records and particularly LP, or long playing record, you were more inclined to listen to music that might not be instantly likeable, you know, purely because of the sheer effort of getting up and moving a turntable arm from one track to another, whereas now we’ve got the skip button, very much like the remote control on the TV. Are we doomed to listen to more and more familiar, simple, unchallenging bland anodyne music?

Tom:

I mean I think yes and no. We might be, have bit more of a chance to be exposed to a random bit, simply because we can change so quickly but you know if you’re talking about track six of an LP, I mean, a lot of people never got to that anyway. There are a lot of sort of buried treasures on some of these albums that DJs had to dig out, that was always the work. But it is really so easy to jump around others. There’s so little cost of acquisition or you know so much, so little work to be done that you could… You know in the old days I would take a subway and I’d go to one of my favourite record shops, come back with about three or four CDs, you know you think of the total time spent to acquire that stuff, I would then probably give an equal amount of time of listening to repay that investment but now just in the subway time alone I could be skimming through, you know, sort of 20 or 30 artists. So, one person described this in an interesting way I thought that we have ever more chances to like things but the question is are we sort of hurting our ability to love things because we’re always sort of flitting around with so many choices that the sort of deeper engagement becomes less possible. I’m not really sure what the answer is there. I mean it certainly seems like a risk but you know I’m a great fan of Spotify. It certainly widened my musical horizons and probably has changed my, it’s probably made me a little bit less patient of a listener as well and I just want to point to something here that is a major kind of theme, the psychology of liking which… I often you know I’m on a stationary bike so I have a sort of playlist and that playlist will occasionally pop up some new stuff but when I’m doing exercise, for example, I find myself really wanting the familiar because something that I know that will give me a little boost of energy and this is, you know these kind of axes of familiarity and novelty are very interesting to me because they both serve going way back in human existence. You know from an evolutionary point of view they’re both serving an interesting you know and vital role. I mean familiarity is, as it’s been described, what didn’t kill you yesterday is what you will, is the food you will enjoy today. However, if you’ve sort of eaten all the fruits that you can eat in your little plot of land and you need to go out looking for what’s new, you can understand why part of the brain might really be primed to respond to and react to novelty in a positive way. So I think, you know, again as I said before we are multitudinous creatures and there may be times we really want what’s entirely familiar. There may be times we are in a very novelty-seeking mood. So that’s where it just gets very hard to pin us down into one sort of self in that regard. Sorry that’s a very long answer there.

Gerry:

[Laughs.] That’s okay, it was a very deep question. You do talk about rats and humans sharing this trait of being, I can’t remember whether you call it neophobic omnivores or omnivorous neophobes, that’s what you’re talking about there, isn’t it?

Tom:

Yeah, I mean we have the ability to eat anything, rats or humans, yet we are you know instinctively afraid of what’s new so that’s where you get the little nibble and I mean what’s interesting, what’s called the “mere exposure effect” in psychology in which our liking for a stimulus that we at least were neutral to the first time we encountered it will, it tends to only go up on repeated exposure. So with food or music or arguably even art, just seeing something again and again and again increases your liking for… One argument that I like is that you know as with something like a language, the first time you hear it, you really don’t understand it at all but as you start to listen to it, perhaps even learn it, your fluency goes up, you begin to understand or kind of even know how to, it becomes a little bit more familiar to us and what we really begin to like as much as the stimulus itself is our sense of fluency or that thing, so when I hear a song for the third time it you know it’s no longer an absolute novelty or mystery to me. I can begin to anticipate chord changes. I feel like I’m a little bit more in control of that song and that actually makes me feel good. That’s one argument there. So, yes, the mere exposure effect is why you know some foods, for example, just take a certain amount of time. When I went into this book I had just sort of a residual, almost a superstitious dislike of fennel, just to bring out an example. I actually, I’m not alone in this. If you look online, fennel is one of these things that some people seem to have a reaction to. I thought it might be biological, that seems to have no basis in truth but I didn’t grow up being exposed to a lot of fennel in my diet and you know so I felt like I was just a few good exposures away from liking and then loving fennel. I mean, once it was prepared the right way, it was explained to me, you know, spotlighted in a dish so at the end of this I kind of came away thinking that nothing, there’s very little we should inherently dislike and most of our dislikes are done for just reasons of sheer economy or socially derived but we are open potentially to anything, just like rats.

Gerry:

And in fact you talk about people becoming averse to foods that they are given prior to treatments, for example, cancer treatments and so on. You talk about a sacrificial taste whereby they can have some foods they don’t particularly like anyway prior to the treatment and that’s the thing that they learn to hate more rather than ending up hating chocolate or something that’s highly desirable.

Tom:

Yeah that was a fascinating experiment. It became sort of the scapegoat flavour that acquired the brunt of their disliking. This is often another thing in the psychology of taste is that understanding the reason behind a liking can be a little bit of a tough thing to pull out. If you’re at a restaurant and you think you’re really loving the food you know, at some point you know to what extent are you being influenced by the people that you’re with, the idea that you’re expected to like it, the music that’s playing, the temperature that day, the colour of the walls. I mean there are all sorts of interesting experiments where these sorts of variables have been tinkered with and people’s reaction changed. So the idea that there’s this you know sort of what would be the word? This kind of this…

Gerry:

Contextual?

Tom:

Or this inviol… I can’t even say that [Laughs], this sort of unchanging taste that exists in a pure, platonic state is simply not true. I mean one of my favourite experiments, they took a painting in a Swiss art museum and they put it in the centre of a gallery wall and studied how many people looked at it. Then they moved it to the corner of the gallery wall and the number of people looking at that same painting dropped dramatically. So leaving out the question of whether they liked it or not, whether they even saw it, which is the first precondition to liking something is actually seeing it but again just that mere change in context obviously affected how people felt about it and this, just to bring it back to sort of the world of user design and the online world, which is why a place like Netflix is constantly tinkering with the arrangement of films that are presented to you on your splash page as you open it because, you know, their research shows that we tend to pick from the first row and we tend to pick from the first ten films in that first row and things further down tend to fall off. So this is kind of obvious to a lot of us but it’s always interesting to see it actually being researched and the data behind it.

Gerry:

It’s amazing how much we expose of ourselves in these sorts of decisions. I mean Netflix knows a lot about our musical taste and knows that when we come home drunk on Wednesday night we’re not going to watch that, you know the highbrow movie, we’re going to sit down in front of whatever and watch it for ten minutes and then change the channel and it’s gathering all that sort of data and we seem quite comfortable to let it out there to these third party companies.

Tom:

Yeah, I suppose you know with the idea that it will never sort of come back to us to the except that anyone would actually care, I’m not sure but I mean the only thing it’s really violating again is this sort of idealised presentation of self which sociologist Erving Goffman talked about, you know we need to, that is important as well. I mean why do we, why would we even create sort of idealised Netflix queues for ourselves that our friends will never actually see? It’s to sort of build up our own internal picture of who we are that helps us face the outside world. There is some interesting data from… I talked to someone at Last FM which actually did, and so you could sort of publicly share your likes and dislikes and they had sort of a nice feature which was the songs that were most quickly deleted from one’s playlist. They were played like for a second and then, so these are your sort of standard guilty pleasures that you just wanted to kind of indulge in but not leave this lasting trail.

Gerry:

There’s an interesting thread and I think it’s come out in our conversation today so far but also in the book about status and self-image and self-awareness and I often wonder how can we judge people in the future? You know, when I walk into somebody’s house, I look at their bookshelf and I look at their CD or record collection but increasingly that doesn’t exist anymore and we’ve sort of lost this ability to pre-judge people based on their apparent reading and listening and watching habits.

Tom:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean this, as you know the Marie Kondo revolution takes hold and we’re all simplifying our lives and getting rid of everything, you know, I mean, I’m trying to think, there are, I think in some ways that may have shifted to some of that sort of commodified existence of sheer things hanging around one’s house may have shifted to sort of online curation where we are, instead of things we are presenting\ the things we’ve done, the places we’ve been, the people we’ve been with, the food we’ve consumed and posting images on sites like Instagram or Facebook and that, the traditional social signalling of having a book on the subway that looks really impressive, you know, is replaced by other things and but it is kind of an unsettling thing to see people clutching something and wondering you know whether they’re reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” or Tolstoy. And more power to both of them I suppose but we do lose that, at least one aspect of that public performance.

Gerry:

To side-track completely, that just reminded me, there’s an Irish writer, he’s dead now, but his name was Brian O’Nolan, he also wrote as Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen and in his newspaper article in the Irish Times he proposed this service whereby somebody would come in to your library and, you know, which you had because you had a lot of money but no time to read the books that you had purchased, and there were various services that he would provide. One was to just sort of you know riffle through a few books and break a few spines and the next level was he’d actually annotate them and the most expensive or premium level was whereby he would forge “Thank you” notes from the authors to the owner of the library.

Tom:

That’s brilliant because I mean there are of course famously these services, the Strand a bookstore here in New York City does this, and there are others that will just you know provide books by the yard for you know McMansions or just for people with, who are looking to decorate a house with books and these books are not acquired I think in any kind of meaningful way. They’re just, they just look good on a shelf by the square foot so I don’t think they take it as far as that wonderful example.

Gerry:

To get a little bit more hands-on here, you quote psychologist Robert Zajonc, I think his name is, who wrote; “For most decisions it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that there has actually been any prior cognitive process whatsoever” and I guess that ties in with some of the stuff Kahneman and others have been saying. That’s rather a depressing, or at least disempowering thought, isn’t it?

Tom:

Yeah I suppose that depends what we’re talking about but I mean it does leave us thinking that there’s no sense of agency, but I’ve been coming around to this idea of the predictive brain which is out there that a lot of people are talking about, most remarkably Andy Clark in his new book which is called “Surfing Uncertainty” but this idea that you know, when I go out to you know when I go out for a simple walk on the street that am I encountering stimuli as they’re actually coming along or do I already have sort of an idea of what might be out there on the street that I would want to see and my attention is being drawn to that? And how much, how many things am I then missing because I’ve not been pre-tuned to those things which the implication here in the world of taste is that it gets back to this idea that there are so many things out there that I do think we would actually like, that we sort of think we don’t because it just makes it easier. I mean the brain, at some point we have to optimise and economise. There’s just too much stimuli out there to, I mean there’s more music on Spotify, there’s more music on the service called Forgotify which is every song on Spotify that’s only been played once. I mean there’s more music on that service than I could listen to the rest of my life so at some point we have to sort of draw borders and fences here and make decisions and what, so I think in some ways our instinct, which is why just “dislike” can be so powerful is just to throw that out as an immediate sort of warning mechanism kind of filtering mechanism that, you know, okay I’m not going to like this maybe if I hear about it a second or third time I might begin to think about it but, oh, if it’s new why should I even, why should I even bother with that? Unless we find ourselves predisposed, sort of novelty seeking situation in which then you’re sort of happy to see new things and this side, as I mentioned in the book, is something that I think when we go to something like a contemporary museum of art, that’s exactly when we’re in that novelty seeking frame of mind and our brain is so open to looking for things and wanting to experience new things that as the joke goes we often, people will see sort of piece of infrastructure in a contemporary art museum, a fire alarm or something, and actually mistake that for a piece of art because they’re so hungry and willing to view everything in that moment as art and the sort of predictive brain has taken over but you know that’s not always the frame of mind in which we find ourselves.

Gerry:

Yeah, I guess it is when we start to interact at some sort of conscious level… and that reminded me of, there’s a part of the book where you go to, I think you’re at McCormick’s, the food company, and you describe trying Dr Pepper’s, which is one of these unpalatable American soft drinks [Laugnter] in the company of some professional tasters and one of them asks you what it reminded you of and you wrote; “There was something but it evaded me, I could almost feel some frustrated synapse waiting to be fired.” Can you tell us a little bit about that episode and about semantic mediation?

Tom:

Yeah I mean the first thing is that it’s just a great example of how much of again daily life we are moving through in which we are really only drawing upon a fraction of our sensory equipment. There’s just so much stuff \we’re leaving out because to not leave it out would be you know to be sort of overwhelmed. If we were, if you were, you know just, I’m trying to think of a thought experiment to give it sort of a human, all of a sudden one day we had sort of a dog sensory ability vis-a-vis the nose, I mean it would be sort of like this amazing experience but it would probably quickly become overwhelming. So you know taste, the idea of what we think we’re tasting, I mean I was consuming it as Dr Pepper and that was a nice handy shortcut which you know made me, allowed me to create sort of a mental object of what I was consuming but also stopped me from thinking any further about what I was actually consuming which was this sort of thing that I couldn’t put my finger on. It was a mixture there were 23 different flavours that Dr Pepper famously advertises. So that is a complex mixture but there was even sort of a familiar, once it was made familiar to me, it was an “Aha” moment but yeah I mean it was just this idea that I could not fathom it you know points to the really interesting role that language plays in the world of sensory tasters and I’m not talking about that sort of prototypical wine language, a lot of which is actually you know not really useful and just a bit pretentious, you know “chewy” and “big boned” and you know other sort of ridiculous things but people actually sort of break these things down like in any food in the world has probably had itself subjected to professional sensory experience with a sensory wheel, you know peanuts, you know you could have notes of grass etcetera etcetera so it becomes a very powerful way that you know the more words you can ascribe to something it helps you unlock the flavours and it becomes sort of a positive feedback loop that, to not have that language I think would deprive you of that, the richness of that sensory experience and there’s an interesting study, some French psychologists did of wine tasters and their sensory language and they you know described it, it wasn’t really a process of trying to analyse this wine, it wasn’t sniff and then think, it was think and then sniff. So it speaks to the idea that a lot of what we’re doing is first trying to situate what we might know about something and that helps point ourselves to these flavours that might be in there. But it was an interesting experience because these, people again, I also spent time with colourists, colour experts at Pantone and colour is yet another thing that like any expert performance you can train yourself to think of it in many different ways. Where most of us would see black, the way I used to see Dr Pepper, you know people, colour experts would talk about the family of black, identify 37 different blacks each with its own set of properties where I might only see one. So, again, to bring this just all back to a single point is that most of us are moving through this sensory world you know a bit on autopilot with only some of our equipment actually engaged.

Gerry:

And you talk about the tasters at McCormick’s, I think you refer to them as “human spectrographs” doing their tasting underneath a red light so as not to predispose them by in fact being, if you like, contaminated by the colour of what it is they’re tasting.

Tom:

Yeah and I sort of asked someone, they were doing a sensory test, I said; “Do you actually like that stuff?” And they said, you know we don’t, we don’t, consumers might be asked whether they like or dislike something but that really is just a simple yes or no question but sensory experts even to ask them whether they liked or disliked something would throw off their sensory apparatus and to again talk about that predictive brain, if you think you like something you’re going to then approach it in entirely different ways so to really be open minded and have their senses as uncontaminated as possible, not only changing the lights but not really giving much information about what they were consuming and certainly not asking them what they felt about it in anything other than a kind of very scientific you know does it have this, you know, rate the texture on a scale from one to ten and then you know the “persistence of crisp” and all these wonderful vocabulary terms so this I thought was an interesting metaphor that, again, I think is a larger lesson that I think we often put those filters of “like” and “dislike” before us in our own life and then that influences how we will then experience an object before we’ve really had a chance to often figure out whether we like it or dislike it so I, again, just sounds like a bit of obvious advice but just you know trying to get past those simple binary terms of “like” and “dislike” and often just you know watch a movie and I joke about this with my wife. She wants to have that sort of reaction right after we walk right out of the film like; “Well did you like that or not?” I’ll say; Well, I’m still sort of thinking about it, you know I need to analyse it a bit, I’m not sure whether I liked it or not,” you know I might have some reason but anyway so…

Gerry:

My wife, if she likes a movie she turns to me at the end and says “Top movie” and if she doesn’t say that it’s not on the “like” list.

Tom:

Right, I mean this is the problem with you know a thumb up or a thumb down and it actually speaks to the data they have analysed at Netflix where, you know, people will behave very differently if they rate a movie the minute it ends versus three weeks later. So, again, I think that’s that idea that contextually our tastes change all the time. We may feel differently about something a few weeks later once the sort of magic of that Spielberg film or what have you fades, or, which again just speaks to another theme I was getting at in the book which is how difficult it can be to try to predict where our tastes are going to be. I mean we know where they’ve been but, you know, just because you love something the minute after you see it obviously things may change in your life, things may change in society, you may have just been swept up in a moment and upon further reflection; “Well it really wasn’t the best thing out there.” And, again, this is kind of like trying to predict the stock market. If there was a science to it, you would be wealthy but often there isn’t. There are people making bets today in the contemporary art market who are going to go I’m sure very, very wrong. I mean they’re paying a lot of money for something that will not be very well valued down the road and they’re probably other things that people hate at the moment in terms of contemporary art that will be what people a hundred years from now are talking about.

Gerry:

Yeah you say in the book at one point if… you’re talking about lost masterpieces, you say if they are such masterpieces how did they get lost? [Laughs.] But you know you talk there about context, you’ve spoken quite a bit about context and in UX we often go on about the importance of context, it does come up throughout the book. Two examples in particular struck me; one was you spoke about a beer that was based on a cocktail. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Tom:

Yeah that was a beer done by the Brooklyn brewery here in Brooklyn New York and it was based on a drink called Penicillin which had sort of a honey, strong honey component but the whole point of it was that it was a strange beer to be drinking as beer. If you weren’t sort of set up for the experience you were going to have, this is what the brew master Garrett Oliver argued to me, that you know, as a cocktail it was a light cocktail, it was a popular cocktail so the idea was let’s sort of do this beer version, but, so it did quite well in the beer press but then as Garrett was mentioning you know often in the actual serving environment it was being rejected. People were saying this is the worst thing I’ve ever had and his argument was that you know people were not being given the context of what they were about to drink. They would just say; “Well here’s this new beer from Brooklyn Brewery” and you sort of, the word “beer” brings up a whole set of expectations and structure and that it’s something that has this you know weird honey taste and mixing some things and so I think that just, I use the example of something like salted caramels. I mean when this candy first came out a number of years ago, you know, you always had to be very careful to advertise that they were salted caramels because, you know, the salt was actually invisible on the candy. You could have hidden the salt but you know because it would throw people. They come in expecting this wonderful you know sweet candy but then there’s this odd salty taste and our human sort of alarm system senses danger and leads to dislike but if you sort of set people up like, Wow! it’s got this twist. It’s not only sweet but it has a little bit of salty then they can sort of you know come in with a set of expectations groomed to enjoy the experience because if there’s one thing I, know sort of learnt through a lot of this research is that people really do not like to have their expectations violated ,especially in food when it’s sort of life or death but even going to a restaurant or a hotel experience, something like TripAdvisor. I think if I had a piece of sort of business advice it would be to, it would be better to always satisfy 100 % low expectations rather than, completely you know miss someone’s expectations, than to violate those expectations.

Gerry:

Now, if a listener should find themselves competing in an ice skating championship or entering their cat into a cat show, should they try to be the first or last competitor?

Tom:

[Laughs.] Yeah, I mean that was a whole, you know the question of serial effects and you know there’s sort of, it can go different ways depending on what’s happening there. But it just spoke to a number of interesting experiments by you know Amos Tversky and other people about the direction of comparison effect and my whole point was just again to get to context, what you had before may make what you had afterwards seem better or worse depending on a number of things but those are always sort of different and it just again brings up the point that often these decisions are not made in isolation and that, you know, the meal you have tonight at one restaurant, if you had eaten at it previously, last night if you had a terrible meal suddenly you go in and you’re just happy to have sort of a great experience if it’s coming down, if you eat at a four star Michelin last night then you go to another place which is actually pretty good but obviously it’s going to suffer by comparison. The thing, I think we can avoid suffering from those sorts of comparisons by categorisation. This is something that I mention some studies about where you know often again we’re experiencing a range of products in the world. They might not all be the best of the category, they may be simply what’s available but I think there is a way to, and a psychologist that I talked to you know sort of talks about this and she calls it, the phrase is “protection for the good.” But if you’re sort of served the best coffee you’ve ever had and then you have some Sanka, you know the idea that you would put them both in the same category is going to obviously lead to a lot of disenchantment. So the importance of categorisation in priming your consumption experience. So, you know going to an airport, you have to, you have no choice but you have to eat at the restaurant that’s there, you know just have that filter of well it’s airport food, how good is it going to be? If it’s actually tolerable, you’re going to be quite happy. If it’s anything above tolerable you’re going to be much happier and if it’s bad you’ll think well that’s kind of what I was expecting so I’m not disappointed. So that’s just a handy thumbnail for happiness perhaps.

Gerry:

Now I have to ask you a bad question. When I got the hardback copy of the book I realised fairly soon that all the page numbers in the index and the notes are out by two pages. How annoyed were you when you found that out?

Tom:

Well, this is something that is news to me. Is this, and I’m wondering if it is only…

Gerry:

Just my copy? They sent me a special copy with the page numbers out? [Laughter.]

Tom:

l there are just some you know some fault of globalisation here but I’ll have to…

Gerry:

Not that I care. I mean it’s not a big deal but it’s just quite consistent. Everything’s out by two pages.

Tom:

Because I don’t think I have that issue. So my great fear though is that you will go to…

Gerry:

Everybody else does?

Tom:

Well, my great fear is you’ll go to a site like Amazon and give the book a one star rating…

Gerry:

For its lousy indexing, yeah that’s right. [Laughter.]

Tom:

Because of this product flaw. I was sure you were going to ask about the blue or the red cover which was just a bit of fun the product designer was having here in the US by releasing two covers.

Gerry:

I’ve only seen the one cover so the hardback itself is a yellow coloured and then the sleeve has got an ice-cream with you know four different flavoured ice creams on it. Have you seen that one?

Tom:

Yes, okay I know this as the UK version. So just a bit of a story here, in the US there are two covers, one is red with chocolate ice cream and the other is blue with vanilla ice cream on this cone. So I mean the idea was you know to sort of have a little bit of fun here in an industry where choice is usually not given to actually give people the choice and we did a little bit of a straw poll and blue was outselling red as you would expect it to, given blue’s predominance in favourite colour charts. What was sort of funny though, going back to Amazon, they will only, they have a disclaimer on their site that when you order the book they will not actually give you the choice of blue or red. [Laughter.] They, either one of two will come to you but you do not have a choice because they are not set up to handle two different offerings of the same SKU. So I like to joke that Alfred A Knopf, this venerable New York publisher, has actually disrupted Amazon with this simple innovation, and, but yeah so blue is slightly, but again you have an entirely different cover which just shows the complications of taste.

Gerry:

Taste in a world of endless choice, Tom. That’s the problem.

Tom:

But even in a globalised age where you know, why does the UK or Australia have entirely an different book jacket design? Why should it not be the same and there is thinking, obviously in those publishing houses that there is something in the psyche of the UK buyer that would respond better to some other arrangement or it’s just that someone wants to express their own creative, you know, stamp on that but I mean we don’t, at the end of the day the thing about publishing as opposed to something like Netflix or an online live environment where you can run A/B tests all the time you can’t, we didn’t publish the US version and then try to sell it in England with that original cover so you know we don’t know if it would have actually sold better or worse than what the UK cover actually was. So these are just you know kind of open-ended questions and just speak again to that history of taste, I suppose.

Gerry:

Yeah you’d want to be getting into the quantum effects if you’re going to start looking at stuff like that. Well regardless of the cover and regardless of the page numbering, it’s an excellent book and I got the impression it could have been twice or three times as long and you had to probably stop yourself at some point.

Tom:

Yeah then we would have gotten into certainly the academic side of things which I’m always drawn to anyway but yeah there was stuff I could have gone deeper and I’m sure I’ll be accused of sort of dilettantism but I think it was necessary, I think…

Gerry:

I’ll remind listeners of the title of the book is You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice. and in fact when I got it I thought it was some sort of promotional thing because it said “you may also like” and I thought what’s that about? In any case I highly recommend the book, it’s fascinating. Tom Vanderbilt, thanks for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Tom:

My pleasure, thank you.

Gerry GaffneyA tasteful interview with Tom Vanderbilt

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