We also seem to crave more variety at the point of decision than we will actually desire down the road. When I was young, for example, I was obsessed by the Kellogg’s variety packs of cereal. Wooed by the sight of the Apple Jacks and Frosted Flakes jostling up against each other, I would clamor for my parents to buy the largest package on offer, a towering block of shrink-wrapped goodness. Having raced through my favorites, however, I would find my liking gradually diminishing, from dizzy Applejacks heights to the sad denouement of a few sparse clusters of Special K and All-Bran, which often went unconsumed, dying a slow death in a shroud of plastic. My parents would, of course have been better off simply buying a few boxes of my favorites, which I would reliably eat every day.
This was what the network scientist Duncan Watts and colleagues found in a famous 2006 experiment. Groups of people were given the chance to download songs for free from a Web site after they had listened to and ranked the songs. When the participants could see what previous downloaders had chosen, they were more likely to follow that behavior so popular songs became more popular, less popular songs became less so. These socially influenced choices were more unpredictable; it became harder to tell how a song would fare in popularity from its reported quality. When people made choices on their own, the choices were less unequal and more predictable; people were more likely to simply choose the songs they said were best. Knowing what other listeners did was not enough to completely reorder people’s musical taste. As Watts and his co-author Matthew Salganik wrote, “The ‘best’ songs never do very badly, and the ‘worst’ songs never do extremely well.” But when others’ choices were visible, there was greater chance for the less good to do better, and vice versa. “When individual decisions are subject to social influence,” they write, “markets do not simply aggregate pre-existing individual preference.” The pop chart, in other words, just like taste itself does not operate in a vacuum.
Trying to look backward, to the last remembered experience of a meal—if only to make a new choice—invites its own distortions. In one experiment, psychologists were able to change how much people liked something (in this case, a “microwavable Heinz Weight Watchers Tomato & Basil Chicken ready meal”) after they had eaten it—not, as has been done with rats, by physically manipulating their brains. Instead, researchers simply had subjects “rehearse” the “enjoyable aspects” of the meal. This, the idea goes, made those best moments more “accessible” in the memory, and thus they popped out more easily when people were later thinking about the meal. Voila! The food not only suddenly seemed better, the subject wanted to eat more of it.
This argument — for example, “Why isn’t music as good as it used to be?” — reflects a historical selection bias, one colorfully described by the designer Frank Chimero. “Let me let you in on a little secret,” he writes. “If you are hearing about something old, it is almost certainly good. Why? Because nobody wants to talk about shitty old stuff, but lots of people still talk about shitty new stuff, because they are still trying to figure out if it is shitty or not. The past wasn’t better, we just forgot about all the shitty shit.”