Sunday, October 20, 2013

Culture and Consequences

Weisman Art Museum
I hit the road again in a couple days, only a week after I returned from my big southeastern book tour.  This time it's a short trip to the Weisman Art Museum, the University of Minnesota's Gehry-designed building in Minneapolis.  I will be one of the presenters in an anniversary evening devoted to a discussion of choice, and I want to devote this blog post to one of my topics: culture.

Different cultures and subcultures maintain different standards in the arts and elsewhere, and consequences are clearly involved.  If everyone at a party prefers pop music and you start playing country/western or rap or classical, there might well be adverse consequences.  Speaking of classical music, a century ago, the Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, with harsh, unpredictable rhythms and dissonance, famously provoked a riot.  One leading critic called the music "barbaric."  Where have we heard this more recently?  Oh, yes--the introduction of rock music in the 1950s and 60s was greeted with similar expressions by some.

How do we develop musical or artistic preferences to begin with?  Often from positive childhood associations, and sometimes explicit consequences and rules:  "This is considered a classic." - meaning "Most people like this so you probably should too."  Social norms operate all over the place, don't they?  All these processes are dynamic, of course, and our preferences and associated reinforcer values can and do change over time. 

Food cultures have a few extra wrinkles.  In his recent book Cooked, Michael Pollan discusses the laborious process in Korea of developing a taste for the sour national dish, kimchi--in its basic form, fermented cabbage.  I've tried it several times--most recently on my southeastern trip--and with all the good will in the world, I could not make myself eat much of it.  (But I hasten to add that the rest of that Korean dinner was great.)

For many Korean kids also, a taste for the dish must be trained over time:  Eating kimchi is modeled by adults, there's a slew of positive associations in the larger culture that enhance its reward value, and the youngsters get directly praised for persistently trying it.  It goes beyond, say, acquiring a preference for your local barbecue style in the US, because for most people kimchi is definitely an acquired taste.  It's a healthful, nutritional dish, though.

Among the obvious applications, taking advantage of these cultural value-enhancement methods can help to develop healthy eating habits in youngsters.  I'll devote a future post to approaches like the successful Food Dudes program encouraging kids to eat fruits and vegetables.

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