How are our tastes created?

How are our tastes created?

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Is there a scientific explanation of one's aesthetic preferences? Why do they differ from one person to another? Are they the results of one's culture and social interactions?

Any reference would be appreciated.

Five factors influence your taste in music

What kind of music do you like? If you have trouble answering that question, you’re in good company, says Jason Rentfrow, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge in England. Most people’s music preferences cross genres and defy categorization — but that may not be the case for long, thanks to research by Rentfrow and colleagues that unearthed five factors underlying music preferences. Their research was published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In the first study, the researchers asked 706 participants to listen to excerpts from 52 songs and rate how much they liked each one on a scale from one to nine. Statistical analysis revealed that, rather than being guided by genre, five previously unknown factors were driving people’s preferences. A follow-up study recruited music experts who attached names to the categories: mellow, unpretentious, sophisticated, intense and contemporary (MUSIC). A case in point: A person who likes music high in the mellow and unpretentious factors would, for example, enjoy singer-songwriter Brad Paisley, while someone who enjoys sophisticated and unpretentious music would rather listen to banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, even though both artists share the “country” genre.

Like the ubiquitous “Big Five” personality factors, the five “MUSIC” factors could form a foundation for future research, says Rentfrow.

“It will allow researchers to investigate music preferences in people from different age groups who might not otherwise have a vocabulary for doing so,” says Rentfrow.

The factors could also have practical applications, perhaps by recommending new artists based on your digital music library, he adds. And next time someone asks you what kind of music you like, you might be able give a response as precise as an equation.

There's more to it than geography

While terrain, climate, flora, fauna and religion have influenced traditional cuisines, individual cultures also develop unique preferences and aversions within these confines. The anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy has observed that the hunter-gatherer tribes on Earth today – nomadic peoples who do not farm and can eat only what nature has to offer – are as finicky as the next person. The Mbuti pygmies in Angola understandably find the idea of feasting on leopards a bit gross, because leopards eat humans. And primates resemble people too much to be appetising. Kalahari bushmen know about 100 desert plants to be edible, but only 14 varieties are considered desirable. They hunt giraffes, warthogs and antelope, but think ostrich tastes bad, and zebra meat is dismissed as smelly.

Culinary peculiarities also exist among different ancient tribes who live side by side. In Kenya, the Masai drink plenty of cow's milk and blood, whereas the neighbouring Akikuyu people are all about spuds and cereals.

How Sensory Marketing Works

As an approach that appeals to the senses instead of logic, sensory marketing can affect people in a way that traditional mass marketing cannot. Classic mass marketing works on the belief that people—as consumers—will behave "rationally" when faced with purchasing decisions.

Traditional marketing assumes that consumers will systematically consider concrete product factors like price, features, and utility. Sensory marketing, by contrast, seeks to utilize the consumer's life experiences and feelings. These life experiences have identifiable sensory, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral aspects. Sensory marketing assumes that people, as consumers, will act according to their emotional impulses more than to their objective reasoning. In this way, an effective sensory marketing effort can result in consumers choosing to buy a certain product, rather than an equal but less expensive alternative.

For the Harvard Business Review in March 2015, sensory marketing pioneer Aradhna Krishna wrote, “In the past, communications with customers were essentially monologues—companies just ‘talked at’ consumers. Then they evolved into dialogues, with customers providing feedback. Now they’re becoming multidimensional conversations, with products finding their own voices and consumers responding viscerally and subconsciously to them.”

Sensory marketing attempts to ensure lasting product success by:

  • Identifying, measuring, and understanding consumers' emotions
  • Identifying and capitalizing on new markets
  • Ensuring first and repeated purchases (brand loyalty)

According to Iowa State University Professor Jihyun Song, consumers relate various brands to their most memorable experiences—good and bad—with their buying behaviors driven by "storytelling and emotion." In this manner, sensory marketers work to create emotional ties that link the consumer to the brand.

Taste, smell and flavor

What is generally categorized as “taste” is basically a bundle of different sensations: it is not only the qualities of taste perceived by the tongue, but also the smell, texture and temperature of a meal that are important. The 𠇌oloring” of a taste happens through the nose. Only after taste is combined with smell is a food’s flavor produced. If the sense of smell is impaired, by a stuffy nose for instance, perception of taste is usually dulled as well.

Like taste, our sense of smell is also closely linked to our emotions. This is because both senses are connected to the involuntary nervous system. That is why a bad taste or odor can bring about vomiting or nausea. And flavors that are appetizing increase the production of saliva and gastric juices, making them truly mouthwatering. 

How Tastes Get Acquired

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People can acquire tastes at any age, and not much research has been done into when these preferences tend to evolve. Anecdotally, at least, adolescence seems to be a critical time. At this point in life, people are very susceptible to peer influence, which may be one of the biggest factors driving acquired taste. “If people you like like a flavor, that tends to make you like it,” Rozin says. “If your peers do it, that's very important. If heroes like Hollywood people do it, it tends to make you like it. Not always, but it tends to.” So if you grew up watching your older brother eating hot wings, or Anthony Bourdain eating offal, that could explain why you enjoy those foods as an adult.

But most people don’t suddenly fall in love with a food after seeing it on the plate of someone they admire. Usually, acquiring a new taste is a gradual process that’s shaped by numerous variables. One is mere exposure. If someone is exposed to something repeatedly—whether it’s a food, a song, a place, or a group of people—they may start to like it simply because it’s familiar. Mere exposure can explain the vast variation in food preferences across cultures. Spicy dishes are everyday fare in certain Asian, African, and Latin American countries, but those same foods may be inedible to someone from Scandinavia. Hot peppers contain capsaicin, an irritant that creates a burning sensation on the tongue. To someone who’s never tried a hot pepper (or hasn’t tried a lot of them), this feeling would be naturally unpleasant, but people who grew up eating peppers have had their whole lives to get used to the heat.

This doesn’t just apply to foods that cause physical discomfort. In some European countries, aged cheeses like limburger, stilton, and camembert are popular parts of the cuisine. Many people in East Asia would be disgusted by what’s basically rotten dairy, but they’ll happily eat decayed fish in the form of fermented shrimp paste or fish sauce. In both cultures, the innate aversion to decay is still present, but they’ve made special exceptions for the flavor through mere exposure.

Taste is important not only because it allows us to enjoy the food we eat, but even more crucial, because it leads us toward foods that provide energy (sugar, for instance) and away from foods that could be harmful. Many children are picky eaters for a reason—they are biologically predisposed to be very careful about what they eat. Together with the sense of smell, taste helps us maintain appetite, assess potential dangers (such as the odor of a gas leak or a burning house), and avoid eating poisonous or spoiled food.

Our ability to taste begins at the taste receptors on the tongue. The tongue detects six different taste sensations, known respectively as sweet, salty, sour, bitter, piquancy (spicy), and umami (savory). Umami is a meaty taste associated with meats, cheeses, soy, seaweed, and mushrooms, and particularly found in monosodium glutamate (MSG), a popular flavor enhancer (Ikeda, 1909/2002 Sugimoto & Ninomiya, 2005).

Our tongues are covered with taste buds, which are designed to sense chemicals in the mouth. Most taste buds are located in the top outer edges of the tongue, but there are also receptors at the back of the tongue as well as on the walls of the mouth and at the back of the throat. As we chew food, it dissolves and enters the taste buds, triggering nerve impulses that are transmitted to the brain (Northcutt, 2004). Human tongues are covered with 2,000 to 10,000 taste buds, and each bud contains between 50 and 100 taste receptor cells. Taste buds are activated very quickly a salty or sweet taste that touches a taste bud for even one tenth of a second will trigger a neural impulse (Kelling & Halpern, 1983). On average, taste buds live for about 5 days, after which new taste buds are created to replace them. As we get older, however, the rate of creation decreases making us less sensitive to taste. This change helps explain why some foods that seem so unpleasant in childhood are more enjoyable in adulthood.

The area of the sensory cortex that responds to taste is in a very similar location to the area that responds to smell, a fact that helps explain why the sense of smell also contributes to our experience of the things we eat. You may remember having had difficulty tasting food when you had a bad cold, and if you block your nose and taste slices of raw potato, apple, and parsnip, you will not be able to taste the differences between them. Our experience of texture in a food (the way we feel it on our tongues) also influences how we taste it.

Neural Nostalgia

As I plod through my 20s, I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon: The music I loved as a teenager means more to me than ever—but with each passing year, the new songs on the radio sound like noisy nonsense. On an objective level, I know this makes no sense. I cannot seriously assert that Ludacris’ “Rollout” is artistically superior to Katy Perry’s “Roar,” yet I treasure every second of the former and reject the latter as yelping pablum. If I listen to the Top 10 hits of 2013, I get a headache. If I listen to the Top 10 hits of 2003, I get happy.

Why do the songs I heard when I was teenager sound sweeter than anything I listen to as an adult? I’m happy to report that my own failures of discernment as a music critic may not be entirely to blame. In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have confirmed that these songs hold disproportionate power over our emotions. And researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults—a connection that doesn’t weaken as we age. Musical nostalgia, in other words, isn’t just a cultural phenomenon: It’s a neuronic command. And no matter how sophisticated our tastes might otherwise grow to be, our brains may stay jammed on those songs we obsessed over during the high drama of adolescence.

To understand why we grow attached to certain songs, it helps to start with the brain’s relationship with music in general. When we first hear a song, it stimulates our auditory cortex and we convert the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies into a coherent whole. From there, our reaction to music depends on how we interact with it. Sing along to a song in your head, and you’ll activate your premotor cortex, which helps plan and coordinate movements. Dance along, and your neurons will synchronize with the beat of the music. Pay close attention to the lyrics and instrumentation, and you’ll activate your parietal cortex, which helps you shift and maintain attention to different stimuli. Listen to a song that triggers personal memories, and your prefrontal cortex, which maintains information relevant to your personal life and relationships, will spring into action.

But memories are meaningless without emotion—and aside from love and drugs, nothing spurs an emotional reaction like music. Brain imaging studies show that our favorite songs stimulate the brain’s pleasure circuit, which releases an influx of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other neurochemicals that make us feel good. The more we like a song, the more we get treated to neurochemical bliss, flooding our brains with some of the same neurotransmitters that cocaine chases after.

Music lights these sparks of neural activity in everybody. But in young people, the spark turns into a fireworks show. Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones. These hormones tell our brains that everything is incredibly important—especially the songs that form the soundtrack to our teenage dreams (and embarrassments).

On its own, these neurological pyrotechnics would be enough to imprint certain songs into our brain. But there are other elements at work that lock the last song played at your eighth-grade dance into your memory pretty much forever. Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, notes that the music of our teenage years is fundamentally intertwined with our social lives.

“We are discovering music on our own for the first time when we’re young,” he told me, “often through our friends. We listen to the music they listen to as a badge, as a way of belonging to a certain social group. That melds the music to our sense of identity.”

Petr Janata, a psychologist at University of California–Davis, agrees with the sociality theory, explaining that our favorite music “gets consolidated into the especially emotional memories from our formative years.” He adds that there may be another factor in play: the reminiscence bump, a name for the phenomenon that we remember so much of our younger adult lives more vividly than other years, and these memories last well into our senescence. According to the reminiscence bump theory, we all have a culturally conditioned “life script” that serves, in our memory, as the narrative of our lives. When we look back on our pasts, the memories that dominate this narrative have two things in common: They’re happy, and they cluster around our teens and early 20s.

Why are our memories from these years so vibrant and enduring? Researchers at the University of Leeds proposed one enticing explanation in 2008: The years highlighted by the reminiscence bump coincide with “the emergence of a stable and enduring self.” The period between 12 and 22, in other words, is the time when you become you. It makes sense, then, that the memories that contribute to this process become uncommonly important throughout the rest of your life. They didn’t just contribute to the development of your self-image they became part of your self-image—an integral part of your sense of self.

Music plays two roles in this process. First, some songs become memories in and of themselves, so forcefully do they worm their way into memory. Many of us can vividly remember the first time we heard that one Beatles (or Backstreet Boys) song that, decades later, we still sing at every karaoke night. Second, these songs form the soundtrack to what feel, at the time, like the most vital and momentous years of our lives. The music that plays during our first kiss, our first prom, our first toke, gets attached to that memory and takes on a glimmer of its profundity. We may recognize in retrospect that prom wasn’t really all that profound. But even as the importance of the memory itself fades, the emotional afterglow tagged to the music lingers.

As fun as these theories may be, their logical conclusion—you’ll never love another song the way you loved the music of your youth—is a little depressing. It’s not all bad news, of course: Our adult tastes aren’t really weaker they’re just more mature, allowing us to appreciate complex aesthetic beauty on an intellectual level. No matter how adult we may become, however, music remains an escape hatch from our adult brains back into the raw, unalloyed passion of our youths. The nostalgia that accompanies our favorite songs isn’t just a fleeting recollection of earlier times it’s a neurological wormhole that gives us a glimpse into the years when our brains leapt with joy at the music that’s come to define us. Those years may have passed. But each time we hear the songs we loved, the joy they once brought surges anew.

Training Your Taste

Training yourself to like something you despise seems odd, but whether it's lower salt intake or more fruit and vegetables, sometimes a person needs to eat foods that they may not be fond of. Unfortunately, it's not that easy.

"We can't change our genes, so some food likes or dislikes may be difficult to alter drastically," says Stein. "Repeated exposure can increase relative liking for a food but may not be able to change a disliked food into one that is liked. In other words, exposure may make a disliked food less disliked."

While repeat exposure to a food can decrease dislike, it can also increase liking. For instance, research done at the Monell Chemical Senses Center showed that people who stick to a lower-sodium diet over time eventually prefer lower levels of saltiness in their food, explains Stein.

And of course, there are acquired tastes, such as caviar.

"If you really hate something, having it over and over again may not change it," says Bernstein. "But we know people develop tastes for something -- in social settings you have to eat things you may not like but eventually, you acquire a taste for it."


To Compose the Perfect Bite, Listen to Your Food

In the last decade or so, restaurant critics in North America began noting that eateries were becoming increasingly loud, according to Spence. Some writers, including those at The New York Times and New York City’s Village Voice, began adding noise level as a part of their reviews.

“Those levels do now seem to be above 100 decibels in a number of restaurants,” which, especially for people working there, can damage hearing over time, says Spence.

But those loud volumes might be doing more than hurting our ears—they might also suppress how we perceive the saltiness and sweetness of foods, according to research published in Food Quality and Preference in 2010.

In the study, the researchers asked participants to eat chips and cookies while listening to white noise at either high or low volumes, or in silence. They found that the eaters perceived saltiness and sweetness as less intense when they ate the food in the presence of loud background noise, in contrast to when they ate it with quieter or no background noise.

“It’s a bold sort of effect, given the right situation,” says Andy Woods, who lead the study and who is currently head of online research at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford (which Spence runs). “If you reduce the intensity of saltiness by 20-30 percent, that’s going to have a very significant impact on your enjoyment of the food.”

Woods likens the phenomenon to what happens when you hear loud music while trying to listen to someone speak at a normal level—the music simply drowns out the person’s voice.

On the other hand, some research suggests that, under the right conditions, loud noise might actually enhance certain flavors. For example, one recent study, published in June in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, found that background noise like what you encounter on an airplane—notorious for being extremely loud for passengers, typically reaching around 85 decibels at cruising levels—may in fact boost the taste of umami, a savory flavor known as the fifth taste and found in foods like tomatoes and mushrooms.

“Instead of merely being immune to the effects of loud noise, auditory conditions in air travel may actually serve to enhance this already appetitive and sought-after taste quality,” wrote the researchers, who are affiliated with Cornell University’s Department of Food Science.

(This specific study only recreated airplane cabin decibel levels, and didn’t simulate other factors that can be experienced in flight, such as changes in cabin pressure. However, British Airways and a research firm called Leatherhead Food Research ran a study a few years ago and found that umami flavor was enhanced at high altitudes. Another airline, Lufthansa, also found in 2010 that cabin pressure seemed to slightly heighten umami flavoring.)

There isn’t enough brain research yet to explain exactly why some flavors seem to be suppressed by surrounding noise while others might be heightened, according to Spence. He says that neurogastronomy—“the study of the complex brain processes that give rise to the flavors that we all experience when eating or drinking”—is still a relatively new discipline, having only emerged over the last decade or so.

Moreover, other studies suggest that it’s not just the volume of sounds that seems to affect flavor—the type of sound might play a role, too.

A few years ago, psychology professor Adrian North, then at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, set out to see if certain styles of music could influence imbibers’ perception of wine flavors.

“The music was chosen to be ‘powerful and heavy,’ ‘subtle and refined,’ ‘zingy and refreshing,’ or ‘mellow and soft’”—qualities that can also be used to describe wine, explains North, now at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

Participants drank red and white wines while sitting in a room where one of the four styles of music played softly in the background. When they were finished drinking, they were asked to describe the wine. “What we found was that the ratings of the wine tended to mirror the ratings of the music that was playing in the background,” says North. Furthermore, “nobody mentioned the music.” (The results were published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2012.)

North says the major takeaway from this experiment is recognizing the role of music in our daily lives. “Music is now part of life, not necessarily a focal object,” he says, like it was when you used to have to sit down in the living room to listen to a vinyl record, for example. “Given that it’s so present these days, it’s just impacting the way in which we perceive the world.”

Spence has also tested how the style of pervading sound influences taste. In 2009, he co-created a seafood recipe with chef Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck restaurant in England. Named Sound of the Sea, the dish (which has shifted ingredients over time but is still available at the eatery) is plated on edible “sand” and splattered with what appears to be sea foam. Diners are asked to put on headphones connected to an iPod placed inside a conch shell and listen to a soundtrack of waves crashing or the cries of gulls while eating.

Several years ago, Spence had some diners listen to cutlery noises instead of the beach soundtrack. “Those who had the Sound of the Sea rated the seafood as significantly better tasting or enjoyable,” he says. The experiment (referenced in the Journal of Sensory Studies in 2010) shows how sound might be used to emphasize or draw people’s attention to certain flavors of the dish. In this case, the maritime atmosphere might have accentuated the taste of the seafood, Spence says.

In light of findings like these, North suggests it would be smart for cooks, restaurants, and others involved in food marketing to understand how music might influence the taste of their food.

Spence agrees. “We all think—chef, psychologist, food critic alike—that we can just taste the food on the plate, or the wine in the glass,” he says. “Our experience and our enjoyment of taste and flavors of food at home, in the air, in a restaurant, is as much about everything else as it is about the ingredients and how they’re prepared.”

Of course, Spence adds, preference will always depend on the individual, too. But now there are reasons to think beyond the tongue and nose when considering how we enjoy food. “Sound is the forgotten flavor sense. What we hear has a much bigger influence than any of us realize.”


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