Accounting for taste

Found this article about “accounting for taste” in music, books, film, etc., to be quite interesting.  Some of it makes a lot of sense to me; parts of it less so.  Anyway:

After analyzing the data, the researchers concluded that people’s aesthetic tastes can be broken down into five “entertainment-preference dimensions.”

They are: Aesthetic (which includes classical music, art films and poetry), cerebral (current events, documentaries), communal (romantic comedies, pop music, daytime talk shows), dark (heavy metal music, horror movies) and thrilling (action-adventure films, thrillers, science fiction). The first two fall under the general heading of highbrow, while the final three are labeled lowbrow.

“I believe most people stay in the high/lowbrow domains, and then communal,” Rentfrow said in a follow-up interview. He noted that, among study participants, “there was a fair amount of crossover,” usually between two of the highbrow or lowbrow categories. Communal — a category that also includes family films and TV reality shows — was the only one that attracted large numbers of devotees from both sides of the divide.

I’m not going to draw too many conclusions from myself (oh, why not, what’s the point of a blog), but I do have some issues with the basic breakdowns.  Poetry?!  I’m all about the aesthetic, but seriously, who actually reads poetry?  Also, I love science fiction, but not because it’s “thrilling,” but because its cerebral (at least good SF) is and makes you think about the world in new and different ways.  Also, I really like “dark” entertainment, i.e., bad things happen, no happy endings, etc., but have little use for heavy metal or horror movies.

This next bit struck me as somewhat dubious, too:

For instance, “individuals who enjoy the aesthetic entertainment factor, which may be regarded as abstract, dense and demanding, tend to be creative, calm, introspective and in touch with their emotions,” they write. Those who are drawn to dark entertainment genres tended to rate high on intellect and extraversion, but low on conscientiousness and agreeableness; they “may generally see themselves as defiant, reckless and immodest.”

In contrast, “It appears as though the psychological characteristics most central to individuals who prefer the communal entertainment factor are rather similar to the defining characteristics of that factor: pleasant, lighthearted, unadventurous, uncomplicated and relationship-oriented,” the researchers add.

Just how does a person get declared “uncomplicated” anyway?  I also think this study probably underplays the role of peer group influence on these tastes.  If you are a college professor talking about TV, you’ll find most of your friends will want to talk about HBO, AMC dramas, etc.  Other lines of work, are surely much more likely to discuss the CBS Monday night comedy line-up and CSI.  People like to consume the media that their friends consume to make it a more social experience.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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