The Acquisition of Taste

In response to our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “Faking It,” a reader named Kevin Melchionne sent in a paper he wrote for Contemporary Aesthetics, called “Acquired Taste.” I have only skimmed it, but it appears well worth a close read for anyone who cares about this kind of thing. The implication is that some modes of “faking it” may lead to a new degree of authenticity, and pleasure. Of the themes we explored in the podcast, I would say that religion is perhaps the likeliest candidate for this process, although that is not something Melchionne addresses.

I thought of the paper while reading this interesting Times article on cilantro. (I love Harold McGee: food + chemistry = fascinating.) When I first moved to New York, I found cilantro in a surprising number of restaurant dishes, especially in Indian restaurants. To me, it tasted very much like dish soap. (McGee explains why.) But, not wanting to appear a cilantro-hating (or Indian-food-hating) philistine, I powered through those dishes — yeah, I faked it — and came to not only like cilantro, but use it regularly in cooking.

Some highlights from Melchionne’s paper:

Acquired taste is an integral part of the cultivation of taste. In this essay, I identify acquired taste as a form of intentional belief acquisition or adaptive preference formation, distinguishing it from ordinary or discovered taste. This account of acquired taste allows for the role of self-deception in the development of taste. I discuss the value of acquired taste in the overall development of taste as well as the ways that an over-reliance on acquired taste can distort overall taste. …

Why set out on a chase for new satisfactions when my own are immediate and available without effort?

The answer is that acquired tastes can be rewarding. Acquired taste jump-starts new satisfactions where I do not initially find them. Through acquired taste, I grow in my capacity to enjoy what the world has to offer. The shiver down my spine at my first sampling of sushi was not one of delight. I was repelled by the cold slug of fish and the horseradish. Playing along, I smothered the second piece in soy sauce, grateful for the familiar saltiness. Soon, though, I was branching out from California rolls to unagi and uni, tuning into the freshness and subtle variations in flavor. As for [my friend] Rachod’s scotch, I am still trying. Surrounded by advertising, friends, and experts, we are constantly asked, pestered even, to acquire a taste for one thing or another. These entreaties come with the promise of some new satisfaction. But when should I take the promised rewards of acquired taste seriously? When should I dismiss them as not for me and quite possibly utter [expletive deleted]?

Ruth e.

indeed, Bernie Madoff has wonderful life plus country club jail. this is a great country, isn't it?


The best example: beer.

I don't care who you are, everyone hates beer when they first try it.

However, you pretend to like it as your peers start drinking it in (in most cases) high school. By the time you actually turn 21, you love it and most light beers go down like water.

Please don't turn this into an underage drinking endorsement. Most people start drinking in hs, and it's common and legal in most of Europe.

Patrick Basiewicz

I have been big fan of music for years... started with Heavy Metal... and have been working in many music stores in my life, and could observe how my music tastes, those of co-workers and customers changed. I now believe that (almost) anyone can be made to like (almost) anything, given the right mix of stimuli. Of course, level of exposure to the experience (music in this case) is very important. However, peer pressure is a big one, but also a need to differentiate oneself and be seen as a "leader" (as opposed to being a follower) are important too. It was quite funny seeing die hard fans of one music genre switch their tastes quite dramatically at times.

These days I can say that i like this or that because 1) my friends liked it, 2) i tried to be interesting and different or 3) i genuinely like it. I wish i could say that the latter reason is the most prevailing.


So true.

Fine wine tastes great as long as you've seen the lable before you've tasted it.

On a related note: Coke vs. Pepsi. Many people claim they can taste the difference, but few actually can. I've participated in a couple of informal tests that confirm this belief.

Maybe someone out there can direct the Freakonomics team to a formal study of Coke vs. Pepsi or similar that hi-lites the ridiculousness of consumers and the power of brand??

Olga Lednichenko

Upgrade your tastes - move from Cilantro to Cilantro+Turmeric - and then later on - try Garam -Masala

Of course the King of the Hill will be curry-with-wine

and when you get to the top-of-your-taste - you will realize, you cant have just any red wine. Its got to a wine with class - i meant taste. Yes, you guessed it, it comes from a special soil {France - its got to be}



"a form of intentional belief acquisition" -- That's exactly what I decided at an antique sale one day, years ago. We were standing in the second floor of the Minnesota State Fair Coliseum while my fiancé drooled over yet another "gorgeous" Mission chair.

I'd argued that the style looked dark, clunky and depressing. "No! No! The gaps between the spindles let air and light through!" I'd pleaded that my leanings toward brocade didn't endear the leather or plain-fabric upholstery to me.

His yearning for all things fumed-oak wasn't changing, and I finally realized, "Well, I haven't found any styles I like better." So I decided right there to start liking Mission stuff. We got each other a small oak desk for our wedding.

And all that Mission stuff looks pretty good in the 1924 house we ended up buying.


Sorry, I call foul on the Coke v Pepsi thing. There is a huge difference between the two. That said, I find them harder to tell apart in the US than in Europe (all that HFCS perhaps?). You go to a restaurant and ask for a coke and you always know straight away when they've given you a pepsi instead. Eww.


Some acquired tastes that haven't caught on in the US:

1. classical music and opera - Over in Europe and Asia it seems like it is appreciated/enjoyed more. Maybe it has something to do with participation rate?

2. Clam shell sushi - okay I admit even the Japanese say the following is an acquired taste, but they are impressed and say I have sophisticated tastes when I say I love the following: Giant clam, Abalone, Red Clam, Surf Clam, Japanese Clam (tsubugai), aoyagi, anything ending in ...gai (in Japanese) or clam (in English).

Okay I'll admit I haven't acquired the taste for uni. It tastes too oily, fatty and mushy.

3. Following sports haven't caught on in (popularity and participation) the US - ski (nordic, alpine, aerials, etc.), soccer (catching on slightly), rugby, fencing, karate (and other self defense arts), hockey, gymnastics and lastly as a recreational sport horseback.

I don't know why these sports are popular abroad but maybe it has to do with participation rates more than slick marketing, commentary and sports scholarships and growing up watching sports on tv?

Football is boring and not as exciting as rugby or hockey. Golf and baseball is too slow and boring too. Not much going on, seriously leave the tele for 5 minutes and then come back. Maybe this says something about the American viewers who enjoy watching these sports? Maybe Americans prefer to appreciate sports through the tele - zone out, relax, live vicariously through the athletes, bond with other viewers rather than bother with ACTUALLY doing the sport? BTW I think it would be interesting to watch the top football teams play rugby against the top rugby teams in Europe/world and top baseball teams play cricket against the top cricket teams in Europe/world.


Eric M. Jones

In the Fall of 1968 the NYTimes music critic published an amazing piece where he described his experience going to music events and finally found himself at one where he knew nobody. All his friends were over at another friend's smoking dope and listening to the Beatles. Thus he was converted.

I was converted into a fan of Picasso in an instant when I started to paint. Suddenly, Picasso was a genius. Before that...not so much.

Coke is flavored with orange essence. Pepsi with lemon. With real sugar instead of corn syrup the flavor difference is greater.

I don't believe I will ever like nama uni (sushi).


RadioLab had an episode (I forget which one) about a musical piece that initially caused riots when played (Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring), but then got standing ovations a few years later and was eventually was used in Fantasia. It's all about how the unfamiliar sound was so foriegn to the brain that the brain itself rebelled against it. Once people were exposed to the music, their brains were able to take it in and process it.

I'd imagine it's the same thing with tastes and smells.


How is it faking when you actually learn to appreciate something? When you were a child, there were many adult things that you were told you'd like when you got older. Some of those you tried only because you realized there might be truth in that. Some, like alcohol or scotch, you tried for social reasons.

I hated a number of things but learned to like them and I take that to mean my system was exposed to them and adjusted so I could then sense the good in them.

Hard work at the gym? Must learn to do that and the body must learn what it feels like. Spicy food? You learn it isn't actually burning you and then you taste the food.

Eileen Wyatt

It would be interesting to correlate the ability to tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi with having the "supertaster" receptors on one's tongue. With a population distribution of roughly 25% nontasters*, 50% medium tasters, and 25% supertasters, one would get taste test results below chance.

*Nontasters have a sense of taste but do not perceive certain tastes.


I'm pretty sure there's literature in both economic and cognitive decision theory on acquired taste.
Mr. Dubner should perhaps ask some of his coauthor's colleagues about this. The models will be highly mathematical, but some of their conclusions should be interesting.

George Washington

Benedict Arnold. Cilantro is evil. Faking religion is far more acceptable.



Speaking of faking religion, I have heard this said, oddly enough, by ministers! Their point being to live or act in a way that represented what you WANTED to happen...until it actually happened.

I think we should all aspire to not only the better angels of our nature, but to the better habits of culture, refinement, and civilization. In such cases, "faking it 'til you make it" might be a good thing--after all, who in their right mind would eat foie gras by accident?

But at some point, it is no longer about trying to better yourself. It is just hypocrisy. It is Vichy France played at the individual level. And it is just as loathsome.

Let's be honest, no one in this nation needs to fake being a Christian in order to live or thrive. Rather, this is just a form of inauthenticity that is used to gain "perks," and it is just as distasteful and low as if a Christian faked being an atheist so he could send his kids to the really cool Annual Summer Camp for Avowed Atheists.

This is America. No, you might not get all the bells and whistles that come from being a Jew, Christian, friend, colleague, classmate, nephew, or any number of other sorts of connections that give us the edge. So what!!! Be man enough or woman enough to be authentic, to be true to who you REALLY are.

So you don't get invited to the church picnic? So the boss' son got the corner office instead of you? So the CEO hired a former colleague instead of you? Hey, it happens. It's always happened.

And yet somehow we survive.

Only if your life is at stake should you be willing to hide the truth. I'm not talking about taking out an ad in the paper to announce your atheism. I'm just saying if you are a good person/neighbor, then whether you are an atheist, Muslim, Christian, Gator Fan, or what have you (OK, wait--Gator Fans are indeed evil--sorry!), you will get doors opened for you. It might not be the big promotion you wanted...but it will be enough to get by. And as far as I'm concerned, being true to myself makes up the difference if I didn't get the big promotion I would otherwise have gotten if I'd been false to myself.



I think the source of motivation is most important for acquired tastes. If someone you trust tells you to listen to a certain song because it's good, then you'll be more inclined to enjoy it, or at least give it a few tries. There are a number of different factors in regard to these motivations though. If you become inundated with recommendations, you might be turned off. I think music in the information age is definitely the best example. There are certain bands, albums, that I'm biased against right off the bat, whether because they're too popular and I'm too much of an elitist to accept them, but I always keep an open mind with regard to recommendations from certain outlets. It's scary though, how easily we can be swayed by potentially skewed messages (Amazon, I'm look at you).


From beer to scotch to sushi and deviled eggs, strong flavors require repeated tasting. This is certainly true of extremely spicy food, for which an acquired taste and, even tolerance if you will, are required.

After all, we "force" children to eat vegetables and other foods they are not naturally drawn to. This is the socialization of "acquired taste".

So go ahead, fake it until you truly love a vodka martini or a Manhattan after a long week of work.


I've become more and more sensitive to flavors, which is a shame because I can't eat even medium-hot foods any more. But I find much more pleasure in seemingly-bland food like vanilla custard.


There's a very interesting book on this--Stanley Lieberson's "The Social Elements of Taste." As a former student of his, I highly recommend it.


I remember the first time I listened to a recording of Steve Reich's Drumming. When it was done I literally had one of the worst headaches of my life.

A few hours later I listened to it again, and when it was done thought it was one of the best things I'd ever heard. No exaggeration. I acquired something in those few hours.