The Psychology of Taste, and Choice

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Commentator and resident philosopher Alain De Botton analyzes why certain kinds of aesthetic tastes appeal to people. It's all in the psychology, he says.


Commentator and philosopher Alain de Botton makes a living wondering why people do the things they do. Lately, he's been thinking about why people develop particular aesthetic sensitivities.

ALAIN DE BOTTON: It's hard not to be mystified by the tastes of others. How could anyone like that we're liable to ask when confronted with a tiger skin style sofa or minimalist concrete bedroom, a Louis XVI chair or an ornate Persian rug. To get a feel for the bitterness and confusion that the tastes of others can generate, you only need to eavesdrop on a bad temperate struggles of exhausted couples in kitchenware shops or carpet emporia.

No wonder the Romans first coined the expression de gustibus non est disputandum - tastes are not to be disputed.

But I think you can make some generalizations about how taste works. I think we're drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally or our societies, more generally, are deficient.

You'll call a nearly empty blank canvass beautiful when your own life is slightly messy and your city chaotic. We call good taste a style which can move us away from what we fear and towards what we crave, a style which carries the correct dosage of our missing virtues.

Viewed in this light, a given stylistic choice will tell us as much about what someone lacks inside as what he or she likes. Take the taste for extremely grand, gilded ornate furniture. Contrary to expectations, such taste won't be favored by people who feel particularly rich inside. Rather a gilded style will hold a distinct attraction to people who are haunted by a terror of chaos, poverty and humiliation from which they're desperately trying to flee.

Or take someone who loves calm, empty, pure, minimalist rooms - the sort of thing that the architect John Pawson specializes in. Far from this person, actually being calm and pure inside, he or she is very likely to be oppressed by a fear of disintegration and panic.

Or take the widespread modern love for the rustic country style. Rarely in human history has so many people been so keen to pretend that they're simple country folk. We might think this is a sign that we're at heart of a very traditional society, but far from it. It's, in fact, our excessive modernity. It's this astonishing dominance of the high tech in every area of our lives, which has left us longing for some of the qualities of the old and the rural.

Our understanding of the psychology of taste can in turn help us to escape from the two great dogmas of aesthetics, the view that there's only one acceptable visual style or even more implausibly that all styles are equally valid. The diversity of styles is a natural consequence of the many fold nature of our inner needs. It's only logical that we should be drawn to styles that speak of excitement as well as calm, of grandeur as well as coziness given that these are key polarities around which are own lives revolve.

BLOCK: Alain De Botton is a philosopher and the author of The Architecture of Happiness.

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