Sparkling or still water? Organic or conventional avocados? Four stars or three-and-a-half? The modern world sets loose upon us a barrage of choice in the consumer marketplace, while the Internet not only expands our consumption opportunities—giving us most of the world’s music in a smartphone app—it offers us myriad new chances to learn about the tastes, and distastes, of others.
For several years, leading up to the 2016 publication of my book You May Also Like: Taste in An Age of Endless Choice, I dove into the latest research on consumer behavior, via social science, psychology, and neuroscience. Now, to help you navigate the confusing landscape of endless choices, to choose wisely, more efficiently, and with greater self-awareness, I have distilled some of that research into the form of an advice column—though in this case I also supplied the questions, based on real questions that arose during my research, and which I have subsequently heard from friends and readers.
I was trying to find a hotel in Florence last night on TripAdvisor. I spent hours reading reviews and afterward felt less certain about my choice than when I began. Can I trust the “wisdom of crowds” at places like TripAdvisor and Yelp?
First, let’s unpack that phrase. An often neglected point that author James Surowiecki made in his popular 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds is that a group is “far more likely to come up with a good decision if the people in the group of are independent of each other.” In other words, the crowd has a better chance of being wise when they do not have access to “the same old data everyone is already familiar with.” On Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, and other hives of user-generated ratings and reviews, people are not acting alone. The review that they write will be seen by many other people, and before writing their review, they were probably exposed to the opinions of many other people.
Reading about strangers’ experiences is not necessarily a bad way to predict our own experience. As University of Virginia psychologist Timothy D. Wilson and colleagues note, the process of “surrogation” (learning vicariously through others) can lead to “more accurate forecasts about one’s own enjoyment than receiving a description of that experience.” This is in part because we might discount our own biases in thinking about how much we might enjoy something like a hotel, and in part because we might tend to think our own opinion is more unique than it is.
Use TripAdvisor and its ilk sparingly. Glance at the overall rating, and number of reviews, but don’t wade too deep into the thicket of reviews.
But others’ opinions can create biases of their own. Massachusetts Institute of Technology management professor Sinan Aral and colleagues have found in experiments, through the mechanism of “social influence bias,” that the presence of a positive review, for example, can inflate the number of subsequent positive reviews. An analysis of Amazon reviews, by contrast, found that later book reviews tended to diverge from earlier book reviews; one problem is that readers’ expectations have been influenced by previous reviews—people began to review other reviewers. And reviewers, of course, tend to be those who are most motivated—those who had the best, and worst, experiences. This helps explain the famous “J-shaped distribution” of Internet reviews: Mostly positive, with a sharp negative tail, and a dip in the middle. Selection bias begins before reviewing, of course; “purchasing bias” implies the people who are more likely to like something were those who purchased it in the first place.
There are other caveats. A property may be popular on TripAdvisor because it is cheap, or because it has a lot of reviews—not necessarily because it is the “best” place to stay. As a study in The Journal of Consumer Research found, comparing reviews of products on Amazon across various categories, the things that got the best reviews rarely converged with the products deemed best in Consumer Reports testing.
Lastly, because of ordering effects, we may simply never find the things that would be our favorites. On a recent trip to a coastal Mexican town, a person pointed me to a low-key fish shack on the beach. It was easily the trip’s most memorable meal. But when I looked for it on review sites, it was buried dozens of places away from the “top” restaurants.
So what to do? Use TripAdvisor and its ilk sparingly. Glance at the overall rating, and number of reviews, but don’t wade too deep into the thicket of reviews—you will become quickly confused by the conflict between varying peoples’ expectations and experiences. Ignore one or five star reviews, and focus on the action in the middle, where people are more authentically grappling with how they felt. Look at user-submitted photos more than reviews, so you can draw your own conclusions. Finally, look to other sources. The wisdom of the crowds is not always good at seeking out the lesser-crowded places.
When I am at a restaurant, I always seem to spend a long time trying to decide what to order, to the annoyance of friends. How can I make a choice I’ll feel happy about, and, in general, how can I get the most pleasure out of a dining experience?
A few quick heuristics might help. The economist Tyler Cowen suggests ordering the least appetizing sounding thing on the menu, at least at nicer restaurants—if it sounds so bad, there must be a good reason it’s on the menu. The psychologist Paul Rozin offers this tip: If you want to experience more pleasure before the meal, order something you have had before; you can access your memory of that pleasure. But if you want to create new memories—more pleasure in the future—order something new. And don’t think too much about the meal beforehand. Research has shown that merely thinking about a certain food can invoke the phenomenon of “sensory-specific satiety,” whereby our liking for that food begins to decline the moment it is in our mouth (and apparently beforehand).
“Choose well,” counseled Goethe. “Your choice is brief and yet endless.” This is an easier proposition when we dine alone. Making a food choice in a group, as psychologists Dan Ariely and Jonathan Levav have found, can lead to less satisfaction, because we often order something else than we might want because someone else at the table ordered the thing we wanted. Research conducted at a restaurant in France found a sort of tipping point: When roughly 85 percent of people in a party began choosing an option, other diners began looking for variety.
But you shouldn’t get too hung up on any particular choice. It’s just a food decision—we make some 200 of those per day, according to food researcher Brian Wansink. Your regret is likely to last only until you begin to contemplate your next meal. So ignore what your friend ordered, ignore what the waiter tells you is good that day, ignore the memory of what you had last time, and just go with your gut.
Sometimes I will come across something I have bought and wonder, “What was I thinking?” How much can I actually trust that my own choices will make me happy?
Imagine you are in a store looking for a new sweater. On a table before you are arrayed a range of colors. Your eye seems drawn to a certain hue, not your usual—but you decide to give it a go. Before we even consider what thought might have led you to choose one over another, we need to think about what drew your eye to that preferred sweater. As Roger Carpenter, a professor of physiology and neuroscience at Cambridge University, has noted, the simple decision of where to look next is the choice we make most often in the course of a day.
But these eye movements, or saccades, do not often happen in as fast or predictable a fashion as one might imagine. As Carpenter notes, “we take far longer to respond to sensory stimuli than is altogether reasonable on purely physiological grounds.” In other words, something is happening beyond pure reflex, as if the brain were thinking about how it wanted to make that seemingly involuntary action. That is just one element behind Carpenter’s theory that there is a “neural mechanism” in the brain that helps generate random behavior. “Neurons in the brain encode probability,” he writes, “and run races with each other to make decisions.” So, with the sweaters, the one you first saw, even if it was not the one you thought would have stood out more to you, may have simply been the neuronal race winner.
Choosing the “right” sweater is mostly a fait accompli—that you have chosen it makes it right.
Now, just because you saw it first does not mean you will buy it. But it raises the question: If we cannot even fully account for where and why and what our eye falls upon next, how much faith can we put in what lay behind our ultimate color choice? The process is random, Carpenter suggests, to ensure we do not always make the same rote choices, an evolutionarily adaptive survival mechanism; think, he says, of sexual reproduction: “Not just in the selection of mates, which is evidently random enough, but of course in the random crossings of meiosis, and the randomness of the great sperm race to the egg.” This “gratuitous randomness” also seems to provide us a handy mechanism for navigating a world with ever more choices. Just let your neurons decide.
So you choose what you take to be your preferred choice. Or does simply making the choice help create the preference? That theory has a long history in psychology, and a more recent study by Tali Sharot and colleagues demonstrates how strong the effect can be. In a study that subjects were told was on “subliminal decision making,” they were shown what they were told were two vacation destinations—at lightning bursts of two milliseconds, beneath the level of conscious awareness. In reality, they only “saw” nonsense strings of characters. They were asked to make a choice as to their preferred destination, and then asked to rate that destination. They liked what they had “chosen” more than what they had not, even though they had made the choice blind.
So as much as knowing what we like, we like thinking we know what we like. Choosing the “right” sweater is mostly a fait accompli—that you have chosen it makes it right. If it does not end up making you happy, you can blame it on a case of biological randomness gone wrong.
The person who sits next to me in the cubicle at work has this weird habit of subtly imitating various things I do—he has started dressing a bit like me (the very same J.Crew shirt), always goes to see films I have seen, or telling other coworkers about this great new café “he” likes—when I had actually told him about it. Why is this so annoying and what can I do about it?
It sounds as if you’ve run afoul of the “optimal distinctiveness” curve. The theory, first advanced by psychologist Marilynn Brewer, posits that humans are rather divided by two opposing impulses: The need to belong and the need to be different.
In this case, you already belong to a social group—the company you work for—so you don’t particularly desire any more belonging. You now need ways to assert your individuality within that group (with your fashion choices, your discriminating taste in coffee, or other forms of cultural capital). Your coworker, by mimicking your behavior, has reduced your sense of distinctiveness. Optimality, of course, can fluctuate: If you had just joined the company, you might be wanting to try and fit in; if the company was laying off employees wholesale, you might be looking for ways to stand out.
To be a touch more Machiavellian, you could start seeding him with false recommendations of unwatchable movies.
Research by the Stanford University social psychologist Hazel Rose Markus and colleagues has shown the tendency to use choice as a means to convey social distinctiveness is much more prevalent among the middle classes (which I gather you are). In a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers gathered two groups—firefighters and MBA students—and asked each to imagine that a friend had purchased the very same car they had. They were then asked to describe their feelings upon learning that. The positive responses (“Awesome, let’s start a car club!”) tended to come from the firefighters, while the negative responses (“I’d feel betrayed”) typically came from the MBAs.
The researchers speculated that in working-class contexts, choice is seen as a chance to express affinity, while in middle-class contexts, a similar choice is taken by members as a “threat to their uniqueness.” Take solace, though: There are always vanity plates. But what to do about that annoying workmate? Instead of feeling threatened, you could simply take his emulation as a sign of your own importance. Or, to be a touch more Machiavellian, you could start seeding him with false recommendations—of overrated restaurants, unwatchable movies—and watch with perverse satisfaction as he tries to bank upon your poisoned cultural capital.
I’m dating a man who doesn’t share my interest in contemporary art. He’ll happily spend an hour looking at Old Masters, but has no desire to see stuff from much past the early 20th century. How can I get him to move past his aversion to recent art?
The first step is to take him to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After looking at some fine Old Masters, take him to the second floor to see the neon sculpture by Maurizio Nannucci that says, simply, “ALL ART HAS BEEN CONTEMPORARY.” This is a reminder that whatever negativity one might feel in front of contemporary art—anxiety over its inscrutability, doubts about its quality, questioning of its forms and practices—those same feelings probably accompanied (and have since been resolved or forgotten) many of the cherished “classics” that seem so inspiring in other rooms.
One might even suggest that the works that were most confounding in their day have a better chance of being viewed today. Why? According to the theory of “processing fluency,” stimuli that are easier for us to process are more likely to engender liking—because that sense of fluency makes us feel good, hence we transfer the feeling onto the thing itself (fluent things also feel more familiar, and we like what we know). But there is a flipside to this, as shown in studies that test people’s memory for information that was provided in less legible fonts: What goes down easier is also easier to forget. There are plenty of abundantly pleasing artworks that are lovely to look at, and rarely remembered (meanwhile, one does not easily forget Lucian Freud).
Still, your man could probably use some hand-holding. A few tricks, gleaned from experimental psychology, might help. One is to ask him, before going into a contemporary gallery, where he sees himself a year from now. The idea, according to research in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, is that thinking about the future encourages people to think more abstractly—presumably becoming more receptive to non-representational art.
But don’t have him think too far into the future. One group of psychologists have found that “mortality salience”—thinking about death—makes one more averse to art whose meaning might be less than clear. The reason, they suggest, is that “maintaining a basic comprehension of the world is a critical component of how people imbue life with death-transcending meaning and significance.”
Going to a popular exhibit should help things as well—and not simply because all that life might stave off thoughts of death. Via a dynamic termed “mimetic desire,” subjects in one study preferred paintings that were gazed at by someone else, over those from which people looked away attracted fewer glances (even though few participants included this as a reason for their preference). The more people who are looking, apparently, the greater the chance of liking.
Also, keep in mind, as fMRI research has indicated, disliking and liking can inhabit similar areas of neural activation. Sometimes our presumed distaste is just a strong reaction, wrongly interpreted (think of the classic trope, at least in teen films from the 1980s, of the girl who seems to actively dislike some boy, but what has really happened is she cannot help but notice him, and by the end of the film they are in love). But just don’t throw him in the deep end—go to a show that everyone is talking about, or to see some work that changed your life. It may not change his, but it just may begin to change the way he sees things.
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Tom Vanderbilt is a regular Nautilus contributor and the author of, most recently, You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice.
Photo collage created with images from: Richard l’Anson / Getty Images; YuriyZhuravov / Shutterstock
This article was originally published in our “Selection” issue in October, 2016.