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The science behind each consumer's tastes, preferences and product selection

The science behind each consumer’s tastes, preferences and product selection

Typically we explain taste—in food, music, movies, art— in terms of culture, upbringing, and sheer chance. In what we buy often the same applies. It is also attributed to life-experiences, association with certain people or places, the experience of which effects us each individually. Life’s experiences also endow us with appreciation and discernment; the value of longevity of a materials used, the practicality of application, the sheer ebullience of style or use.

In recent years there have been several attempts to explain taste from biological perspectives: either neuroscience or evolutionary psychology. These types of explanations are vague enough to always sound true, but they rarely contain enough detail to account for the specific tastes of individuals or groups. Still, there’s much food for thought in these scientific proto-theories of taste and aesthetics.

The evolutionary explanation of consumer’s taste

An evolutionary explanation of taste assumes that human preferences arise from natural selection. We like salt and sugar and fat, according to this logic, because it was beneficial for our ancestors to seek out foods with these tastes. We like landscape scenes involving greenery and water bodies because such landscapes were promising environments for our wandering ancestors. This line of thinking is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go that far. After all, there are plenty of people who don’t much care for deep-fried salty-sweet foods. And many people who take art seriously quickly tire of clichéd landscape paintings.

Evolutionary psychology can provide broad explanations for why humans as a species tend to like certain things more than others, but it really provides us with no map for navigating differences in taste between individuals and groups. (These obvious, glaring limitations of evolutionary psychology have not prevented the emergence of a cottage industry of pop science books that explain everything humans do as consequences of the incidents and accidents that befell our progenitor apes on the savannas of Africa.)

Explanations involving the neural and cognitive sciences

Explanations involving the neural and cognitive sciences get closer to what we are really after—an explanation of differences in taste—but not by much. Neuroscientific explanations are essentially half way between cultural theories and evolutionary theories. We like things because the “pleasure centers” in our brains “light up” when we encounter them. And the pleasure centers are shaped by experience (on the time scale of a person’s life), and by natural selection (on the time scale of the species).

Whatever we inherit because of natural selection is presumably common to all humans, so differences in taste must be traced to differences in experience, which become manifest in the brain as differences in neural connectivity and activity. If your parents played the Beatles for you as a child, and conveyed their pleasure to you, then associative learning might gradually modify the synapses in your brain that link sound patterns with emotional reactions, so that playing “Hey Jude” now triggers a cascade of neural events that generate the subjective feeling of enjoyment.

But there is so much more to the story of enjoyment. Not everyone likes their parents’ music. In English-speaking countries there is a decades-old stereotype of the teenager who seeks out music to annoy their parents. And many of us have a friend who insists on listening to music that no one else seems to have heard of. What is the neural basis of this fascinating phenomenon?

“Interestingness is the first derivative of beauty”.

We must now enter extremely speculative territory. One of the most thought-provoking theories of aesthetics that I have come across was proposed by a machine learning researcher named Jürgen Schmidhuber. He has a provocative way of summing up his theory: Interestingness is the first derivative of beauty.

What he means is that we are not simply drawn to things that are beautiful or pleasurable. We are also drawn to things that are interesting: things that somehow intrigue us and capture our attention. These things, according to Schmidhuber, entice us with the possibility of enhancing our categories of experience. In his framework, humans and animals are constantly seeking to understand the environment, and in order to do this, they must be drawn to the edge of what they already know.

Of course through-out life we all experience different things, and that’s where the subtlety of nuance and the explosion of interest in the consumer’s perpetual drive to hyper-personalisation stems. Now we know that our preferred retailer, stocking the products of the quality and style we want, has the technology available for him to offer us uniquely discerning product selections. Why then would anyone not demand it, and suspend hard-earned loyalty if a demonstration of relevancy wasn’t forthcoming?

Which brings us ultimately to the diffusion of innovation theory, (E.M. Rogers in 1962) which is how we adopt a new idea, behaviour, or product – most commonly now applied new technology, that retailers can install to add to what we offer our consumers. If the consumer’s preferred retailer adopts new technology to complement their existing ones, they enjoy new new and supplementary benefits – profits, not previously experienced. The key to adoption is that the company must perceive the idea, behaviour, or product as new or innovative. It is only through this that growth is possible.

See this crucial software comparison article: 
Distinctions between all the top hyper-personalisation software providers (Updated)

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