Monthly Archives: March 2016

Taste is sensitivity to fit


Alice and Bob decide to check out a new restaurant. Alice orders the signature burger, which is topped with a fried egg and served on a toasted English muffin. Bob, accustomed to plain patties on a bun with ketchup, is disgusted. To him, the combined textures of slimy egg and crunchy English muffin seem cacophonous. In fact, everything on the menu strikes him as ostentatiously “creative”. He grumpily orders only a side of fries. Noticing this, Alice teases Bob for having bad taste, which he quietly resents. Bob likes what he likes. How can his taste be “bad” if it reliably predicts what will and won’t give him pleasure?

Later, at Alice’s apartment, Alice and Bob argue about what to watch on TV. Alice wants to watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory, which to Bob seems beyond the pale. He derides her bad taste and demands they torrent the latest episode of Nathan For You. Alice grudgingly relents, then squirms and winces throughout. She can’t help wondering if Bob is pretending to enjoy himself in order to seem cool and different. If good taste means preferring discomfort to comfort, how “good” can it possibly be?

Alice and Bob are friends, but sometimes they don’t understand each other’s taste, and this causes conflict. Why?


Sarah Perry, once again:

The concept of beauty in diverse domains has a unifying, definitive feature: it reflects the detection of fit between parts of a system. Beauty presents to us as a mystical quale; this is because a beautiful form is a solution to many simultaneous complex problems. Beauty in nature, art, music, architecture, mathematics, and even human faces is a response to the detection of fit.

Ability varies. Just as some people are better at hearing when a musical instrument is properly tuned, some are better at sensing whether a given solution to an aesthetic problem is correct. Just as the phenomenon of fit exists, so does variation in the ability to detect it.

Sensitivity to fit is:

  • Unequally distributed. Those with high sensitivity are often artists, curators, or critics. Those with above-average sensitivity may simply be good cooks and natty dressers. Those with average sensitivity tend to default to whatever solves social problems for them, such as increasing their status. They are unlikely to notice if an aesthetic experience doesn’t work in other ways.
  • Expressed as selection or creation. Most aesthetic problem-solving is just picking the best option from existing choices. But sometimes the best option isn’t good enough, and this may compel those with exceptionally high sensitivity to create something new. Too many subpar burgers might push Alice into operating a food truck that sells her unique recipe. A lack of good TV comedy might propel Bob into writing and producing his own YouTube series.
  • Socially motivated. Lack of interest in a problem can indicate that one is unlikely to benefit socially from solving it. Alice cares about burgers and Bob cares about comedy because both have subconsciously figured out their aesthetic comparative advantage — the stuff they feel valued for knowing better than others in their “tribe”. This advantage can be superficial or even illusory, but it doesn’t have to be. The pursuit of new aesthetic experiences can be like hunting for a new “food” source for the tribe.
  • Not necessarily domain-general. Sensitivity in one area does not guarantee it in other areas. Alice knows burgers, but she may dress functionally and without flair. Bob on the other hand may have generally high sensitivity, leading him to subtly manipulate the aesthetic quality of his environment by surrounding himself with particular objects, colors, even odors. But his choice of burgers belies this.
  • Not the same as understanding. When someone feels strongly about something, but can’t explain why, fights happen. Alice and Bob’s mutual teasing can be interpreted as an attempt to put the other party on the defensive. This way they can avoid the responsibility of arguing for their view.
  • Testable. Those with high sensitivity know the difference between “this works for me” and “this just plain works.”  If Alice and Bob are both employed as burger testers for a large corporation, Alice will consistently output better judgments than Bob about which burger recipes will be popular among a particular demographic. As members of a test audience, Bob will be better than Alice at predicting which TV comedies will be most prestigious.


Now that we see the problem-solving underlying aesthetic experience, taste disputes become less muddy. There seem to be two primary types:

  • “Your problem doesn’t matter.” Problems can be ranked according to different values. For example, if A is closer to being solved than B, then B may be more important. Bob’s preferred burgers are in every supermarket and are therefore easily accessible, while Alice’s preferred burgers are comparatively rare. There may be a way to cheaply mass produce the burger experience she prefers. It follows that attracting attention to the problem is a good idea. Instead of seeing things this way, Alice and Bob dismiss the other’s disinterest as mere bad taste.
  • “My solution will work better than your solution.” Shared problems can have contested solutions. For example, Alice and Bob are in a band together. Alice may not care about comedy and Bob may not care about burgers, but both care about music. Their preferences are pretty similar, so songwriting usually flows naturally. However, they occasionally argue about whether a particular chord progression or lyric will achieve a particular effect. They could A/B test different versions with a select group of fans. Instead the decision is usually made by whoever is more forceful.

Because Alice and Bob don’t see taste disputes in terms of sensitivity to fit, they’re unable to see when their respective sensitivities are similarly sophisticated, if pointed in different directions.  Don’t be like Alice and Bob! Don’t ignore opportunities to find each other interesting.