Taste games

Taste games

Feb 2024

I bet you like it when beautiful people laugh at your jokes. And I bet you like the taste of sugar. I sure do.

But what about camping or dubstep or chain restaurants or installation art? What about blue cheese or pick-up trucks or reality TV? Me, I like some and loathe others. And it feels like free will. But if you tried to guess which ones I like, I think you’d do extremely well. (I don’t like dubstep; all your other guesses are right.) Why should you be able to do that?

One interpretation of Bourdieu is that we like things when it benefits us to like them. Tastes are just a matter of:

  1. Understanding the consequences of liking stuff in your social context, and

  2. Having the cultural knowledge of how to like things “correctly”.

Basically, your brain does game theory: Do the cool people around you like potatoes? Would you benefit from liking potatoes? Do you understand potato consumption rituals well-enough to blend in at the hot potato salons? Then: Start liking potatoes.

Unsettlingly, this is mostly supposed to be unconscious. We’re social creatures, we sense what we should become to get ahead, and then we become it, all without involving fickle rationality.

Can that be right?

Well, consider:


When I look at that photo, it’s hard not to feel that the loose-fitting shirt and mom jeans are “objectively” bad. Given who I am, it seems inevitable that I’d dislike them.

But that’s… clearly untrue? If it was 1993, I’d think those clothes were fine, just like everyone else. If it was 1793, I guess I’d think it was stupid he wasn’t wearing a powdered wig.

It’s hard to escape—the reason I don’t like those clothes is that since 1993, fashion changed and I internalized the changes. I internalized them so thoroughly that they feel like an immutable part of who I am. If arbitrary cultural fluctuations can crawl that deep into the subconscious, then where does it end?

Or, say you had a baby girl tomorrow. Would you rather name her Pamela, Brooke, or Ruby? Now, compare:

name graph

A popular theory is that these cycles in name popularity are driven by class: Upper-class people start using unusual names to show their kids are special and the names gradually move down the class ladder as people try to imitate those just above them but distinguish themselves from those just below.

I’ve never seen any convincing proof that this class-drives-names theory is actually true. But it seems clear that we do tend to find that names start sounding good to us just as they’re becoming popular with our peers, even if we don’t realize they’re becoming popular. So it sure seems like Bourdieu was onto something.

The Fancy Cars Game

Over the last few years, I’ve been dismayed to see some relatives become obsessed with expensive sneakers. I thought, OK, I guess people naturally find ways to hash out a little social hierarchy. But why compete with each other by buying something that’s so expensive? It seems so wasteful.

According to our theory, the answer is simple: People like sneakers because, in their social context, it benefits them to like sneakers. It’s stupid to ask why they don’t compete by knitting their own mittens because there’s no person with the power to decide that. People just follow their unconscious taste algorithm and this is the result.

Just like fancy sneakers, I’ve never been a fan of expensive cars or gold jewelry or designer handbags. I guess I figured I was principled or deep or something. But under our theory, my indifference to these things is completely predictable: I don’t like them because I have more cultural capital than economic capital.

The Glass Bead Game

In 1943, Herman Hesse wrote about a group of intellectuals centuries in the future who live an ascetic existence playing something called the Glass Bead Game. Exactly how the game works is never fully explained, but it seems to involve a simultaneous mastery of all of literature, art, math, history, and science and building ever-deeper analogies between them.

Back to me, I could be into French sports-cars and spend my free time reading about Bugattis. Or I could be into utilitarianism and spend my free time arguing about Sidgwick. Why have I chosen the latter path? Could it be relevant that (a) I cannot now and probably never will be able to afford a Bugatti, but (b) I’m better than most people at jabbering about abstract ideas? If I was very rich but had little education or free time, would I really have the same priorities?

People with mostly economic capital play the Expensive Cars game. People with mostly cultural capital play the Glass Bead Game. We all play the game we think we can do better at.

The Devaluing Game

But I think it goes beyond that?

I reckon I could beat Donald Trump in a debate about the hard problem of consciousness. (This is not something I fantasize about, I swear.) But Trump would obliterate me in a “travel between your mansions in your private plane while being fed caviar by models” contest.

Conceivably, Trump and I could decide that there’s no conflict between our different status-seeking strategies and leave each other alone. But we don’t seem to do that. In practice, people like me sneer at gold-plated toilet seats and insist we really really really have no interest in anything like that, the fact that it’s not an option for us is totally coincidental, can we go back to talking about the French revolution? Whereas people like Trump, I imagine, think people like me are losers who’ve invented fake intellectual games in a desperate cope because we couldn’t win the real game, the only one that really matters, you loser.

I think spending $250 on fancy sneakers is “wasteful” because I don’t value fancy sneakers. But “waste” is a value judgement. Consider favorite Glass Bead pastimes like studying category theory or writing monographs on 18th century Peruvian fruit prices. Glass Bead types might defend these things as productive and not consuming resources. But:

  1. Are you really writing that monograph because you think it will make the world a better place? And not because you want to flaunt your vast cultural capital?

  2. Time is a resource. All the effort that’s poured into Glass Beads could have been spent doing something else.

So there’s waste all around. It just depends on what you consider valuable.


Here’s a painting of still life with a wine glass, because I feel bad about writing so many words and/or to raise my perceived cultural capital:


The Travel Game

What do you see people bragging about? For me, it’s travel.

Something about how people talk about travel has long made me uneasy. After all, travel is expensive. No one in my circles would dream of going to a party and showing off their new Rolex. But somehow, travel is this unusual form of conspicuous consumption that isn’t subject to conspicuous consumption taboos. Why?

My conspiracy theory is that it’s because travel combines Fancy Cars and Glass Beads. Nobody I know brags about flying first class to stay at the Four Seasons in Miami because that’s pure Fancy Cars—you just pay your money and go. To play Travel, you need to go to some unusual corner of the world with an unfamiliar culture and speak the local language and befriend locals and find secret underground parties and sneak into castles at night to sample vinegar made by 18th century monks.

But even when you focus on displaying your immense cultural capital, travel still costs money. A deeper conspiracy theory is that Travel is popular because it allows people who aren’t socially permitted to play Fancy Cars a way to do that while pretending that they’re only playing a normal, respectable game of Glass Beads.

The Escape Game

I strongly recommend Bourdieu for those seeking new source material for neuroticism. At some point while researching all this, I stumbled across some forums with people discussing the right way to pour sparkling wine. There are three main schools of thought:

  1. Tilt the glass.
  2. Don’t tilt the glass.
  3. Do whatever you want, don’t be so insecure, Jesus.

Who’s right? The third option seems strong. But I noticed something. Nobody just says to do what you want. They always first demonstrate that they understand the standard arguments for tilting or not tilting, and then say to disregard them. That demonstration shows that they are above the other groups, not below them. Who’s insecure?

The truly humane position is probably to just acknowledge that we’re all insecure, so even if you think wine’s exalted status is ridiculous, it’s OK to want to know the standard arguments. So: Traditionally, wine is poured straight so your butler doesn’t have to pick your glass up off the table. And people used to think that straight pours—maybe with some special technique—would preserve more bubbles. But you don’t have a butler and tilting turns out to preserve bubbles slightly better. Anyway, the difference is tiny and who cares. Thus equipped to defend yourself from anyone who might try to nip at your social status, do whatever you want.

Here are some thoughts I had when writing the previous paragraph:

  • Should I explain the standard arguments for tilting or not tilting?
  • Anyone reading this would want to know, right?
  • Or am I just telling myself that because I want an excuse to show that I know the arguments?
  • Or is my whole “truly humane position” just an attempt to place myself above people who argue for the third option—exactly the kind status-jostling that I’m accusing them of?
  • What am I even trying to accomplish here? Why am I writing this essay? What am I doing with my life? Who am I?

Apparently, lots of people react similarly to reading Bourdieu. This is a very strange and uncomfortable way to look at the world.

The Art Game

Before Bourdieu, I thought of contemporary art as being innocent and accessible. Like whatever you want! There are no rules! Sometimes at museums I’d go past paintings that were basically just a single solid color, like Ad Reinhardt’s Ultimate Painting painting:

Ultimate Painting

I’d barely glance at these, thinking, “Maybe that was interesting decades ago?” I knew some people found this kind of art confronting, but I just thought they should lighten up.

Sounds nice. But after Bourdieu, I find myself asking myself questions like:

  • Is it just a coincidence that art museums are full of attractive, well-dressed, educated people?
  • If you like art so much, then why don’t you look at more art books at home?
  • You say not to take things so seriously. But how is someone supposed to know they’re not supposed to take things so seriously?
  • Are you sure you don’t enjoy brushing past those solid color paintings—being in an environment with unstated rules and patterns, but where you’ve collected enough cultural capital that you can stand around and tell yourself there are no rules at all?

Bourdieu also spends a lot of time on art production, which he see as a giant battlefield. Artists compete with each other for status so fiercely that they often run out of ways to look more upper-class. So, a favorite maneuver is to adopt patterns from the lower class. But while they might wear clothes designed for factory workers, they wouldn’t wear polo shirts or khaki pants because those are coded as middle class—too much danger that their competitors might not understand their advanced maneuver.

The Beer Game

I’ve noticed disturbing analogies. For example, I sometimes buy fancy beer and sometimes cheap mass-produced beer, but never midrange beer. And sometimes I’ll bring my favorite mass-produced American beer to parties. (Real mass-produced beer, mind you—Pabst Blue Ribbon is for posers.) In doing this, I saw myself as refusing to be influenced by everyone else’s silly status-driven opinions. I was focusing on the actual taste, so I could see that my beer was better than the midrange European or Asian dreck everyone else was drinking. (Becks? Kirin? Ha!) Other people were blind to that reality because they’d been indoctrinated to think that mass-produced American beer was axiomatically low class.

I really thought that! But then why didn’t I ever identify an “actually good-tasting” midrange beer?

Even worse, sometimes I’d see other people sort of sniff at what I was drinking, and some part of me would think, “Ha! They think they’ve done well by bringing Boddingtons. Boddingtons! Haha! They’re so low in the hierarchy they don’t even realize I’m above them. Hahahaha!”

At least, I think I thought something like that? On some mostly-unconscious level? The more time I spend on all this, the harder it is to remember.

The Warhol Game

If you’re into taste games, then this passage from Andy Warhol’s 1977 autobiography is as strange as a passage can be:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. And the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

In Europe the royalty and the aristocracy used to eat a lot better than the peasants—they weren’t eating the same things at all. It was either partridge or porridge, and each class stuck to its own food. But when Queen Elizabeth came here and President Eisenhower bought her a hot dog I’m sure he felt confident that she couldn’t have had delivered to Buckingham Palace a better hot dog than that one he bought her for maybe twenty cents at the ballpark. Because there is no better hot dog than a ballpark hot dog. Not for a dollar, not for ten dollars, not for a hundred thousand dollars could she get a better hot dog. She could get one for twenty cents and so could anybody else.

Sometimes you fantasize that people who are really up-there and rich and living it up have something you don’t have, that their things must be better than your things because they have more money than you. But they drink the same Cokes and eat the same hot dogs and wear the same ILGWU clothes and see the same TV shows and the same movies. Rich people can’t see a sillier version of Truth or Consequences, or a scarier version of The Exorcist. You can get just as revolted as they can—you can have the same nightmares. All of this is really American.

Basically, he says, “What’s great about America is that we’ve abolished taste games so taste no longer signals class and everyone gets the best of everything, horray!”

He’s wrong, let’s not waste time debating it. But did he really believe that? Was it more true in 1977 for America than for Europe? Had Warhol climbed the taste ladder so high that the entire game became invisible to him? Was he playing some kind of Meta Game where he screws with everyone by denying that taste games even exist?

(Apparently there is a tradition of American presidents feeding hot dogs to British monarchs. When Roosevelt hosted Queen Elizabeth at his home in 1939 she supposedly asked him how to eat a hot dog and his response was, “Very simple. Push it into your mouth and keep pushing it until it is all gone.”)

Then what?

You’ve probably noticed this theory is hard to falsify: You think you’re not playing taste games? You think you “actually like” things because of the properties of those things? That’s because you’re playing higher-level games!

And it’s rather convenient that this is all supposed to be unconscious.

There’s also this weird sense of guilt. If you consciously change your tastes so you can fit in, that’s bad. If you unconsciously do that, that’s worse. If you unconsciously don’t try to fit in, you’re scum.

At the same time, taste games are supposed to be human nature. Bourdieu himself says (many times) that you can’t try to escape from these games. If that’s right, then what are we feeling guilty about?

By analogy, you could argue that while the urge to have children may feel like the desire to love and nurture new life, really it’s an unconscious desire to selfishly reproduce your genes. Should you feel guilty about having such urges? That would be an unusual view. Mostly, people figure that whatever the cause, the love they have for their children is real, so why be weird and search backwards in the causal chain trying to make everything so sinister?

In the same spirit, if taste games are human nature, then why don’t we accept it? The obvious difference is that love for children produces a positive thing (more well-loved people in the future) whereas taste games seem to produce negative things (more class hierarchy, less social mobility).

So, I don’t have a great answer. Taste games provide an interesting model for understanding human behavior. But if we really have this unconscious programming that determines all the stuff we like, then we can’t overcome that programming and probably shouldn’t.

I mean, viewed objectively, maybe sex and pooping are gross. But healthy people don’t fight their urges to do them, because they’re part of being human. The best we can do is have a sense of humor about them. Maybe we should treat taste games the same way. (And if you think that’s just another game—stop that!)

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