Op-Ed: Why Do We Like Something?

Hey everyone, welcome back after a most interesting weekend! Well, maybe it was an interesting weekend for you, I certainly can’t speak for all of you. Certainly it was an interesting weekend for those in Spokane, Washington, though, as they had to decide which the greater fire was: The massive, multi-acre wildfires burning up the forest? Or the conflagration downtown that was the Hugo Awards burning themselves to the ground to keep fiction ideologically pure?

Anyway, this week I’m actually forgoing the usual Being a Better Writer post for an opinion piece. Those of you who’ve been following me for a while may recall seeing these once or twice before, but for those of you who are newcomers, the Opinion-Editorial columns are just the rare occasion when I want to write an editorial observation rather than something that’s wholly concerned with the usual posts’ topic of improving one’s writing. It doesn’t mean that these posts aren’t useful, just rather that they don’t quite cover the same context as the usual weekly posts. That said, it’s my blog to write with as I please. So today I’m writing an Op-Ed.

No, it’s not about the Hugo Awards.

Instead, I want to talk about something a little more … well, some might say touchy. I know from prior experience that this topic is a sensitive one with a lot of people. Possibly because it’s the sort of topic that raises questions only we can answer, and some people don’t like their own answers. Today, I want to ask a simple, seemingly innocuous question.

Why do we like something?

As it turns out, the answer is more complicated than we might think. Most of us, when asked such an open ended question, would likely offer an answer similar to the following: because I do.

But do we really? Human nature and psychology is an interesting thing, and quite often what we assume to be simple, easy-to-explain behavior isn’t. Especially when it comes to “personal preference” and what we enjoy turns out to run headlong into what we think we enjoy.

Confused? Let me offer a few examples.

Ever heard of the site Turntable? If not, well, it’s gone now. Turntable was a sort of social music experiment. The core idea was pretty simple: Upon signing up for the site, a user was given a list of virtual “rooms” that they could enter. A simple visual interface gave each member a small avatar inside that space, and at the front was a long table with five cartoon turntables. Five members of the room were DJs, while the rest were audience members. If someone stepped down as a DJ, anyone from the audience could click the open seat and take it.

From there, music happened. Each of the DJs had a playlist of their own tunes, uploaded from their computers, that would play for everyone in the room one by one (if you can see the copyright hurdles that come with this you have a good idea as to why the site isn’t around anymore). The room would cycle through the DJs from left to right, each one being allowed to play a single song before the next DJ got their shot. Meanwhile, the audience could “vote” for whether they liked or disliked a song, represented by a needle in front of the active DJ. More likes meant more head-bobbing from the audience and the needle moving into the green, but dislikes meant no activity and moved the needle into the red. Too many dislikes booted the DJ from the stage.

So, that was how Turntable worked. Now for the interesting part. What made people like or dislike a song?

It was interesting to watch the crowds react to what was played. At one point, I played the song Das Malefitz in the room I was DJing in (a soundtrack room) and observed a case of “What makes you like this?” firsthand.

For the first half of the song, everything was pretty normal. One or two audience members had liked it, but for the most part, everything was pretty chill. Then, in the chat bar along the side of the room, text sprang up. “Hey,” one of the audience members said. “I know this song! It’s from Mass Effect 3!”

The needle buried itself in the green over the next few seconds alongside hordes of comments of “I love that game! I love this song!” etc.

I found this interesting. I’d not said where it was from or who it was composed by. Up until the audience member had made the connection, the only basis for liking the song was the song itself. However, once the source material was known, suddenly almost every audience member began singing its praises and talking about how much they liked it.

The question is: Did they? Or were they merely asserting that they must like it because of its source? None of them had had anything to say about it in the minutes leading up to that lone fan’s realization of where it was from. But once they knew it was from Mass Effect, suddenly the song transformed from “Okay” to “I love this!”

But why? It certainly wasn’t because of the song. In fact, I would argue that most of them didn’t like the song at all. Certainly if pressed, I don’t believe any of them would have been able to give concrete reasons before the admission.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Alright, another example, this one recent. Lately, I’ve been doing some experimentation with Rise. Nothing major. I just went through and took a few glowing statements from some of the reviews and comments Rise has had and put them at the forefront of the synopsis. I was curious to see what kind of effect it would have on the incoming readership. Specifically with regards to the way upvotes are handed out from readers.

Now to note, the only change I made was adding in these comments of praise for the story. I changed nothing else. I just wanted to see what would happen if new readers were being exposed up front to positive reinforcement of Rise‘s quality. Would it have an effect?

As it turns out, yes. A massive effect. If I look at the graph of upvotes over time, before I added in those recommendations, the angle of ascent of that upvote graph was about 30 degrees.

Since I added in the review comments on the synopsis? About 45.

Nothing else about the story has changed. However, more people like it … if only because there are comments at the beginning telling them that they’ll like it (and bear in mind, those are real comments, so I’m not trying to trick anyone).

Right, I think you get the idea by now. It’s very common for people to “like” things based on principle and emotion, rather than logic. Everyone else says they like something, so we have to like it as well (or so we’re told). Or we see something with another thing that we like, and so we associate the two in our head (I liked that thing, so now I must also like this thing since I liked that thing).

This isn’t news, obviously. Most of us suspect on some level—or even admit—that we do this. The catch is that we may do it a lot more than we think, and our perceptions and “enjoyment” of things is far more up for grabs than we might expect.

For instance, who of you listens to “popular” music? Did you know that what plays on the radio is actually a carefully marketed advertising tool? Record labels have found through a lot of study that people are more inclined to “like” and buy a song if they can be convinced that they (along with everyone else) like it through repeated exposure (Google “Exposure Effect” for a foray into this field). Ever wonder why the same new, summer song seems to play over and over again on the radio? Most of the time it’s not because anyone likes it, in fact, most don’t. But studies have shown that after only twenty exposures to such a song, the human mind convinces itself that it likes it, in a form of self-delusion, in order to make the song more palatable. When queried about the music—actually queried—the listeners will offer the same reasons for not liking it that they gave when disliking it, but now say that they “like” the song despite those misgivings. All because of a combination of two things: repeated exposure and perceived peer pressure (well, the radio keeps playing it, so everyone else must like it …).

This is common knowledge in marketing and advertising, and odds are, pretty much anything you find aimed at you isn’t just designed to be attractive or tantalizing in some way, but also packaged so that you’ll “like” it without really knowing why. Whether it’s positive perceived social  reinforcement (cigarette and beer ads are a great example of this) or specially chosen phrases to make you more inclined to give something your attention, time, support, and money, we’re bombarded every day by things that we’re “supposed” to like.

And, unsurprisingly, such actions work. They work very well. Positive reinforcement, perceived pressure, carefully worded slogans … It’s the reason that a group of friends or like-minded individuals can simply move onto a site as a group and become overnight sensations simply by telling everyone they can how important and great the rest of their friends are. If Person A supports and tells everyone how much you should enjoy the product of Person B, C, D, and E, and Person B does the same for Person A, C, D, and E—and so on and so forth—Persons A, B, C, D, and E will successfully curate a large following in short time. All it takes is the right phrases and the right push. Supporters of that ring will “like” each of them … even if the only reason for it is “Well, I liked one thing A did, so I must like B because A said I should like them.”

Again, I’m not breaking new ground here. This has always happened. People have just gotten really good at it in the last hundred or so years. Computers, books, music, movies, games, foods … You name it. Heck, even sports news does this. Next time you watch an EPSN broadcast, for example, note how many words or phrases are designed to make you decide that what they’re talking about is important, valuable, and cool. If there’s a benefit to doing it, you can bet an industry will do it.

Right, so with all this, where does that leave us? We can’t reject this type of maneuvering. After all, reviewers, testimonials, etc, are good things, most of the time. We need to have ways of finding new entertainment and winnowing out the less-than-savory stuff to find what we’re looking for. What we like. And sometimes these pushes can let us know what we might like about a story or product.

The trick is that quite often places aren’t concerned with what we like. They want us to like what “everyone else” likes because that’s profit. And to be honest, while an attitude of “Oh, I like this, I don’t like this” is a good thing in moderation, the kind of wholesale acceptance that many places and people would rather see from us is often less than healthy.

Honestly, I think we need to be more discerning with what we “like.” It’s one thing to look at something and say “Well, X says I’ll probably like it” or “X liked this, should I?” But it’s another to say “X says I should like it, so I do.” And quite often, this second path is the one that most take. They throw what is, quite literally, blind support behind something because they’ve been told it’s “cool” or “popular.”

And this kind of mentality? It’s dangerous. Because it doesn’t just limit itself to our choices in entertainment consumption. It spreads. Once you’ve made the concession that you’ll “like” something merely based on superficial reasons, the gate is open, and you’re far more likely to make similar concessions in other areas. Morals. Politics. Areas that get dangerous whenever you’re inclined just to go with the flow of what others say.

Again, I’m not saying that a blurb on a book cover talking about how great a book is isn’t a good thing. Or a movie review. They can be helpful and informative, but only insomuch that they aid our own judgement instead of becoming our own judgement.

Clearly, the answer isn’t to reject everything. That’s just as foolhardy as accepting everything. The real trick, I think, is to look at why we like or don’t like something and be a little more discerning of what makes something “good.” To find a happy balance somewhere in the middle. Obviously, as an author, I’m hoping that the favorable reviews of my book encourage others to look at them and then buy them. But I’d honestly be a little sad if a reader read it and didn’t like it … but then gave it a Five-Star review simply because others had. Or gave it a One-Star review without reading because another author they read told them they should dislike my stuff (and this actually does happen, though it hasn’t happened to me, I’m not making that last one up). And I’d also be disappointed if someone only read my books and “enjoyed” them simply because “I’m supposed to enjoy them, X reviewer said so” (which is also a real thing that happens, obviously).

I think far too often most are just inclined to go with the flow rather than putting some real thought to things.  We shouldn’t be. Not everything needs to be a life-or-death decision, but at the same time, we shouldn’t just take everything as it is presented to us. No “judging a book by it’s cover,” essentially. Especially when so much of what we see and accept is custom tailored specifically to make us do exactly that.

We need to be more discriminating with what we like. Otherwise, we run the risk of living our lives not with things that we actually enjoy, but facsimiles of such, facsimiles which we’ve convinced ourselves we enjoy more than the real thing.

So again, I come back to the question I opened this whole can of worms with: Why do we like something? Is it just because someone told us that we should? Are we merely parroting another’s words or an advertiser’s claims when we extol a book or song? Or is it because we genuinely like it?

It’s a difficult question, one a lot of people are uncomfortable with. Few want to admit that they only “like” something because the advertising told them so.

Ultimately, our own answer is up to each of us. Why do we like something? Only you can really say.

But I hope that when you do, that when each of us does, our words are actually our own.

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