I’m trying to choose reading material for our upcoming vacation, and am debating whether or not to give the “Game of Thrones” books a whirl. I like political intrigue and family drama and dark, violent themes in my books–I also read fast, so a nice long read is a good thing, for a trip. (Even with a Kindle, it’s nice to stay in the same fictive world for a while, when your external environment changes every day.) On the other hand, I’m terrible at visualizing while reading, so extended battle sequences are a no-go, and also I can never follow espionage plots, so there’d better not be any of those.
I’ve asked my friends to chime in, but of course they aren’t going to take any of that into account, they’re simply going to tell me whether or not to read the books based on whether or not they liked them.
It’s a real cognitive load, apparently, to regenerate your memory of a particular experience and judge it against someone else’s criteria. I got interested in that idea a few years before I finished grad school–the idea that most people, even thoughtful and other-oriented people, find it very hard to recommend books (or movies, leisure activities, or restaurants) that will appeal to someone else. The mind defaults to a kind of distributive property of affection: If I like Friend, and I like Book, Friend will surely like Book!
Recently I was in D.C. and had dinner with a writer friend and his wife, a lovely and gracious couple, and mentioned to them after dinner that I was planning to visit the Smithsonian Museums the following day. I must, I was told immediately and enthusiastically by my friend, must see the Air & Space Museum. As he extolled its virtues I made eye contact with his wife, and in her dancing eyes I read the following: “You’re all about the First Lady dresses and the Great Hall of Mammals, aren’t you?” Yes, yes I am. Technology and machinery do not excite me, and I think my friend probably realized that on an abstract level, but his enthusiasm got the better of him. The kind of arts-empathy I was looking for really is difficult to generate and maintain.
There are at least two reasons for this. One is the unconscious assumption mentioned above, that everything I love must also love each other. The other is that memory doesn’t work like a video recorder. We remember what we encode, and we encode what is relevant to us. When my friends with kids ask me if a particular book or play would be appropriate for their child, I usually can’t answer, because I wasn’t watching or reading through that filter in the first place. So the stuff that I’m looking for, or looking to avoid, in an artistic experience might not even exist in your memory of that experience.
I think, though, that the basic reason people are terrible at predicting what other people would like is simply that they’re not trying hard enough. Almost all social reasoning–figuring out who to trust, what social cues to mimic, etc.–is done through rough, semi-aware heuristics. You can improve your reasoning through active effort. Social interaction is so much the water in which we fishies swim that half the time we’re not even fully conscious of it.
I used to randomly shove books that I loved at people I loved, and sometimes it would “take” and sometimes it wouldn’t. In grad school, my dissertation was on mental models of literary genres–or how people think about different kinds of stories–and started using my own research to better predict what I, and my good-read-seeking friends, might enjoy. It’s a fun exercise.
Here are some questions to ask yourself about what types of books (or plays, movies, television shows–stories are stories, to some extent) you enjoy.
Do you prefer
… stories about a complex individual or stories about a whole society?
… stories in which people compete with each other or in which they cooperate to solve a problem?
… stories that are universal in theme or stories that paint a vivid picture of a particular time and place?
… stories about extraordinary, unusual people and events, or stories about the ordinary and everyday?
… stories in which people are from very different walks of life, or stories about groups of equals?
It’s a different way of thinking than the usual “mystery,” “science fiction,” “romance” categories. See if it helps you make better recommendations!