In high school, dislike was one way I navigated the unfamiliar. Especially when it came to literature I had been forced to read for class, I was passionate about sharing what I particularly disliked about each offending title. One of those books was Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! I had a memory of a particularly intense, gory scene in this book, and given my rather sensitive personality, I remembered that part of the book overwhelming me. To my teenage mind, first impressions were everything. Once distasteful, always distasteful.
With time, though, this rather stark way of viewing the world has given way to the question, “Is it worth revisiting what we dislike?” In the case of O Pioneers!, the answer turned out to be a resounding yes. Despite negative remembrances, I also carried one opinion about this book that had stuck in my memory just as long as the gory scene: Cather’s protagonist, Alexandra Bergson, is an incredibly strong woman. I had also paved the way for myself by reading Cather’s My Ántonia the year before my second O Pioneers! reading, which positively disposed me toward Cather as an author. The fact that friends had shared their liking of Cather’s works and that I had learned how to read literature in college also probably came into play as well.
When I popped in the audiobook for a long drive I was taking and braced myself for reliving my teenage repugnance, I discovered not revulsion, but rather revelry in the novel’s beauty. Cather wrote with a poetic prose that captivated me, Alexandra was a much more compelling character than I remembered, and the supremely gory scene which had sealed my dislike was, upon revisiting, actually quite mild.
This experience of revisiting what I thought I disliked has happened on a handful of occasions over the years. One recent example is my better appreciation for the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice after a recent re-viewing. I found more to appreciate in the aesthetic choices and Kiera Knightley’s portrayal of Lizzy Bennet than I thought was possible for someone who identifies as a Colin Firth-Pride and Prejudice watcher.
Similarly, upon viewing a film version of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park that rubbed me the wrong way, I was convinced that I would hate the book. However, my prejudice quickly came into question when a dear friend told me Mansfield Park was her favorite of Austen’s novels. How could that be? In order to find out, I had to read the book. The result: Though Mansfield Park is still not my favorite Austen novel, I gained a much fuller understanding of, and greater appreciation for, the heroine Fanny Price than the film allowed me.
These experiences have led me to see value in giving the things I once disliked a second (or third) chance. But what accounts for this change in one’s tastes?
What shapes our taste?
Looking back at how my taste evolved in the realm of books and film, I see some similarity to the way a child’s palate changes from being extremely sensitive to bitter foods and insatiable when it comes to high-calorie, sugar-laden ones, to being more likely to try foods like spinach and garlic as an adult, and more sensitive to large amounts of sugar. Taste simply develops with time.
But our palates also adapt with more exposure to new tastes. As sensory psychologist Marcia Pelchat explained to Bon Appétit, “The big predictor of whether someone will like something like bitter melon or hoppy beer isn’t their sensitivity to bitterness . . . It’s their exposure to it, their motivation, their interest. It’s all cultural stuff.” One fascinating example of this is how global food brands tailor their recipes and offerings to different cultures’ palettes.
Can the same be said of our tastes in music, literature, and art? Maybe. Psychologist Robert Zajonc posited that there is a “mere exposure” effect in which “mere repeated exposure of the individual to a stimulus is a sufficient condition for the enhancement of his attitude toward it.” If this is true, it would seem that the more times I expose myself to a certain book, author, or film, the more I’m bound to like it.
But experience tells us that exposure to something is only a piece in the puzzle of liking it. There are some foods, books, authors, and movies that simply do not improve upon revisiting for me. And there are often deep emotional or experiential reasons tied to what we dislike. These are important to note. As a 2013 Guardian article on food aversions explains, “The best-known reason we become averse to foods is as a result of them making us sick. . . . It’s not a conscious thing; brains do it to protect us from further poisoning.”
We have similar responses to other experiences as well—the song we have to turn off because it reminds us of the death of a loved one or a breakup, a personality trait that puts us on edge when we encounter it. Personally, movie violence is a big turn-off for me. Because I don’t want to feel emotionally flooded, I tend to avoid movies that may produce this response in me.
It is true, however, that “mere exposure” may help eliminate the strangeness of a thing which can allow one to begin to perceive what it is rather than simply how it differs from what we already know. Perhaps this explains in part my improved opinion of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice upon reviewing. I was no longer viewing it simply as not the earlier adaptation I knew and loved, but as another interpretation of Austen’s novel in its own right.
I’ve found that I’m often more willing to be reexposed to something I dislike if someone I respect or care for likes it. Friends and family can be major influencers when it comes to our tastes. As explored in a 2014 article in the French journal Sociologie et Sociétés, “[social] networks play an important role in shaping taste formation and expression.” It makes sense that the people we spend a lot of time with help shape our tastes.
My friend Sarah, for example, reshaped my opinion about kombucha. The taste for fermented tea is something I’m still acquiring. But my motivation for revisiting that taste has been influenced both by Sarah’s friendship and the wider culture, where online outlets report kombucha’s health benefits and grocery stores are now likely to offer at least a few varieties of the drink. This beverage has become connected in my mind to a dear friend and good health, and therefore I’m apt to drink kombucha with a more open mind, even if I don’t yet love it.
Re-exposure and the process of liking
Though there may be some things we’ll never take a liking to, chances are we’ll sooner or later come upon an opportunity to revisit something we’ve previously disliked that we’re willing to give another chance. But how to go about re-exposing ourselves to a former dislike?
One method is encountering it in a new way. For example, in my revisit of O Pioneers!, I came to the book not as a student but as a researcher. This time around, I was writing an article about this book for an outlet I liked. It also helped that I wasn’t actually reading the book; utilizing the audiobook format offered me a new mode for encountering the novel. Since I also had to multitask between driving and listening, I listened slightly less intently, and the passing scenery of the drive actually helped illuminate Cather’s poetic descriptions of the landscape, something I’d completely missed in my first read.
The passage of time was also a factor in better appreciating this piece. As mentioned, since high school, I’d had more experiences of reading and writing about literature and more exposure to Cather’s works, which allowed me to better appreciate the aesthetic moves Cather was making in her novel.
Especially in the midst of a media and social media landscape where likes and dislikes are presented as stark dualities, the idea that factors like friendship and greater exposure can gently nudge at my tastes is comforting. It seems to me that if I can change my mind about something as simple as a book, perhaps there’s room to see my tastes altered or deepened in regards to ideas and people. Perhaps on the other side of dislike, we’ll find aspects worth liking.