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]?


Yup. My friend Mitch R., a friend I knew in Claremont at college is the king of acquired taste. It has led him to vilify the very factors, forces, donations, and activities that provided him with the access to a certain taste, and left him without the rewards of the tasteful lifestyle, namely paying it back AND forward.

Mike B

Boy that cilantro really gives is a zip!

Ashley Bidens

Is this an intellectural excuse for fraud and other white collar crimes on Wall Street?

Eric M. Jones

Meditation-- I tell people that mediation will make no sense and seems totally useless or even impossible. That's because they have no "meditation muscle". So you have to struggle onward until you "get it". So you fake it until then.\

I recently went to a piano recital. The pianist was young but okay. The acoustics (church) were horrible, including a noisey heater which decided to come on. The (upright) piano was old and awful, the presentation was familiar classical with a mix of show-tune medleys...and too long, the seating was hard, the audience demographics were basically white hair and hearing aids......It is important to know when you are being conned. It was, even if well-meaning, a simple fraud, but many people felt they had to believe it was "culture".

I once commented on an artist's painting that it appeared amateurish and poorly done. I was informed by my friend that the artist had obviously expended a lot of effort to make it seem that way....See: "The Painted Word", Tom Wolfe.

See: "Penn and Teller B. S. " These guys enjoy exposing cultural frauds.


Jose Hernandez

I know what i like, i still think Animal Collective and Joanna Newsom sounds weird, no matter how many praises i read about them.


Interestingly, I've loved scotch since the day I first drank it -- at the age of sixteen. Why? Because it reminded me of spicy foods in potable form.


it's one thing to be objective about trying something new and an entirely different thing to trudge through something because of possible social repercussions. as if disagreement is the worst thing that could happen if you chose to dislike something. it seems stressful to push yourself to enjoy something when you clearly don't.


Excellent point, Matt.
It is most definitely stressful to pretend belong
to a certain social economic class, when in fact one is actually not. And worse, it is matter of time when everybody will find it out anyway.

Deceit and Keeping up with the Jonese.

Kevin H

I forced myself to start liking olives, and it has pretty much worked. I tried to do the same thing with pickles and could never quite make the leap on that one.


What about the gay culture? I have observed, in this part of the world, that there is a sudden surge in the number of gays. So I was mulling over the fact maybe it's a new lifestyle?

Maybe people are finally coming out of the closet or is it Influence taking over Genetics? As in say, 'Acquired Taste'...?


Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" addresses the "Coke vs. Pepsi Taste Test" as one of the limitations of quick, instinctual judgments. Apparently things like the complexity of tastes and our sensitivity to things like sugar levels are not revealed with brief comparative taste tests, where we can get quite similar impressions of things that don't hold true upon repeated or more lengthy tasting.

On the other hand he does show how taste and preference can be manipulated via a story of packaging and labeling testing between two brands of cheap brandies. But I don't remember which brands they are because I've already cultivated -- completely intentional and self-aware, of course -- a preference for more expensive brands. ;-P