Do I actually like the things I say I like?
May 4, 2010 6:36 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to not rely on critics?

It seems that no matter what show I want to watch, game I want to play, clothes I want to own, etc.. I always search for the internets opinion on the subject.

Amazon reviews are very helpful for a lot of things. Where they are not helpful is when I change my own opinion, or go into something with expectations and try to change how I actually feel to align with the critics. I suppose it's a lot like group think.

When something is critically acclaimed, I want to like it. That statement in and of itself is something I want to change. Wanting to like things that are considered "good" by the masses/critics.
posted by lakerk to Human Relations (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I always search for the internets opinion on the subject.

Dude. Have you seen the Internetâ„¢? People like me write trollish Cheez Wiz reviews and therein cite Oliver Wendell Holmes' opinion on forced sterilization.

Just keep reminding yourself that most people are not examples to emulate.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:48 PM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I enjoy reading. But there are so many books. So I will look around at what is selling well, and what is recommended by others. But when something is recommended so many times, I automatically assume that it is to be liked, even when I don't enjoy reading it.
posted by lakerk at 6:51 PM on May 4, 2010

Well, neither "the critics" nor "the masses" are monolithic entities who pass consensus judgments. Different critics like different things. And the best critics, as well as the best audiences, aren't as concerned with the boolean "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" value of any given work, as they are with analyzing the complexities-- both good and bad-- that make the work interesting.

Supposing instead of trying to figure out whether any given book is good or not good, liked or not liked by you, you instead focus on what you like or don't like about it. For instance: really crisp, spare, engaging prose style, but the plot was overly complex, and you didn't find the protagonist sympathetic. Or lots of helpful information, but disorganized presentation and poor sourcework. Or whatever. The more specifically and analytically you think about a work, the harder it will be to come up with opinions that are simple parrottings of what other people think, and by digging deeper into your reactions, you may uncover independent tastes that you didn't realize you had.
posted by Bardolph at 6:55 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Go read "Obedience to Authority" by Stanley Milgram. It's a great book! And it will give you some insight into this issue.
posted by sanko at 6:55 PM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Critics are useful in analyzing difficult works. I find I need a critical context to appreciate Godard movies, for example. For everything else, just make an active decision to read reviews only after you have read or watched whatever it is and have formed an opinion. Then those differences reconciling will be more you ceding a point than starting from a blank slate.
posted by nathancaswell at 7:03 PM on May 4, 2010

wait, so you're asking how to stop relying on the opinions of people online by.. asking the opinion of people online?

no, but seriously.

There's nothing inherently wrong with relying on the opinions of trusted sources for recommendations of media. It does seem that you're second-guessing your reaction as incorrect if it doesn't line up with an "expert" opinion.

You need to understand that many opinions are just expressions of preference, and that just because someone has a different preference than you doesn't make your view automatically wrong. How you come to realize that will depend on whether you can figure out ways to retrain your thoughts.
posted by dubold at 7:09 PM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

How about become a critic? Not as a job or a hobby, doesn't have to be as much as starting your own blog, but actively review things you like or dislike on Amazon.

When, in the face of public opinion, I hate something that other people praise, it helps me to solidify and understand my own reactions when I write them down. I can focus on details instead of just generalizations, and back up my opinions.

I have a pretty complex relationship with books and movies, and typing out my thoughts helps me come to grips with things like reading all the twilight books in one weekend, even though I despise them.

It also helps me to differentiate between enjoying something and appreciating it. I can see the technical beauty of some movies while still maintaining a dislike of them because they're not to my tastes.
posted by itesser at 7:18 PM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

I have this same problem, but more for music. The thing I try to remember for negative reviews, but I suppose you could apply it to positive reviews as well, is to remember that, at the end of the day it is just one person's opinion. Their taste could be completely different than yours, even if they are paid to be better informed. For things like critical consensus, I think that's harder to outright avoid, but there's usually at least a few dissenting opinions, at least to the point of "this book is highly overrated." If you're going to continue reading reviews and not try to avoid them altogether, I would try and seek out these dissenting views as much as possible so at least you will see yourself as to coming down on a side of debate, rather than simply having to accept a preordained opinion.

Finally, if you want to read about how fickle critics can be, the book "Fire the Bastards!" by Jack Green addresses this issue pretty thoroughly delving into how "critical consensus" can often be a bunch of hacks copying each other.
posted by the foreground at 7:20 PM on May 4, 2010

Why exactly is this a problem? There is a lot of stuff out there, and half of it is below average and at least that much (imho) sux. That is why we have critics, to weed through the crap for us, because few of us get paid to read/watch/play everything, and we don't get to do it for free either.

Except rather than looking for the 'critically acclaimed', which often means commercial drivel, find a few critics that really share your taste and trust them. Now you just have to find some one who critiques critics, huh?
posted by Some1 at 7:30 PM on May 4, 2010

Some exercises in critic-independence:

Think about your set of criteria - the standards by which you judge things. Ask the following questions about them:
  • Which of my criteria did I inherit from someone else (for example my parents or a critic) without any choice of my own?
  • Which of my criteria did I borrow from a friend or someone I admire?
  • Which of my criteria are ones I chose for myself because I liked their consequences (ie. to better observe another more important criterion).
  • Which of my criteria are subverting my other criteria?
Try refining your criteria, figuring out which ones you would probably be better off without, which ones you see other people use that may be helpful. And then judge the quality of what you have seen based on your current collection of criteria.

Every judgment about a creative work betrays a hierarchy of criteria. Look for the critics whose judgments reflect the kinds of artistic criteria you are interested in.

Here are some criteria I personally think are really helpful when looking at art:
  • Can I tell what decisions the creator made, and what the viable alternatives would have been?
  • Would I have to puzzle whether a mistake happened or not?
  • Do the questions (if any) raised by the piece lead to a framing of the subject matter that I find ethical?
  • Can the piece challenge me to change?
  • Does the creator of the work show that she is relatively uninterested in expressing her inner self?
  • Does it surprise me?
  • Does it offer a new way to look at things I have looked at once before? (this one is a HUGE one for me).
  • Is it something which an alien artist who has never seen human art before could have independently invented?
  • Does it remind me of the things I read saw and heard when I was younger, sexier, and happier?
  • Does it make me feel a bit less loneliness and a bit least despair?

posted by idiopath at 7:40 PM on May 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

There's an interesting experiment in Predictably Irrational. Experimenters went into a bar, posed as servers and went up to people sitting around tables and told them they were trying out several new kinds of beer, and would they like a free sample? Everyone was given a menu. Each table was in one of two groups: people at group A tables were asked to go around the table and tell the server which beer they wanted. People at group B tables were given pencils and told to mark their selection on the menu and give it to the server.

So group A made their selections in public where everyone knew what you were getting, and group B made their selections in private, where no-one else knew what you were getting. They crunched the numbers and found that when people order in private, they order the same things more often than if they had ordered in public. At least, in the US they do. In Hong Kong, this same experiment generates the opposite result: private ordering leads to less similarity in ordering than public ordering.

The conclusion is that in the US, there is a general social expectation to be different and order something different from people you are with, even if it means ordering something you actually like less. Conformity is discouraged and slightly stigmatized in the US, but in Hong Kong, standing out and being different is stigmatized. In the US, being a sheep is imagined to be the natural state of being, and you have to work hard to discover your true desires and escape from that, so being unique is laudable. Probably in Hong Kong, being different is thought of as the natural state of affairs, and conforming to others' expectations is considered to be the laudable hard work of becoming who you really should be.

So, paradoxically, there is not a lot of difference between wanting to like what everyone else likes and wanting to have opinions different from everyone else.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:42 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's ok to like what someone else dislikes. It is ok to dislike what someone else likes.
It is even ok to like something that you know is horribly awful.

I used to have a similar lack of confidence in my own opinion. Then one night the radio was playing a rendition of Handel's Messiah while hubby and I were cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. And I really didn't like it. (That version, I mean.) But how can I critique Handel's Messiah? I mean, I know nothing about classical music. And my husband can be sort of a snob about musical stuff. Never the less, I spoke up and mildly said that I was not enjoying this version. And, what do you know, he agreed with me. "Yeah, they just sound really full of themselves." And that really resonated with me for some reason

And ever since then I have a lot more confidence about liking stuff that I like. Maybe some critic thinks its wonderful. But I fell asleep during Lost in Translation. So, no, I didn't like it. It may be wonderful movie in a million different ways. But it wasn't for me, and that's ok.

Other thoughts: We have a used book cart a church. Occasionally I find a great book. More often I bring things home that I never finish. Years ago, I would have made myself finish even if I wasn't enjoying it. Now I just move on. I take it back to be book cart and let someone else try it.

Sometimes I read reviews to help me decide if I want to spend money on a movie. But if I know I am going to see it any, I save the reviews for later. Example: I was planning to see Avatar regardless of the reviews, just because it was such a huge phenomenon. So I avoided the reviews until afterwards. I enjoyed the movie, and I also enjoyed reading other people's opinion after I had formed my own. It gives me a certain amount of internal glee to find that some famous critic sees it my way. Instead of feeling like I am just seeing it his way.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:53 PM on May 4, 2010

I go the other way, and default to not evaluating anything based on "I like this" or "I didn't like this". Instead, to me it's much more interesting to think about the context in which it was created, what social goals it was trying to achieve, what context the work was created in, and how it earned a place in our culture.

I guess some of that stuff is boring or meta to others, but as a result, I almost never see a movie or read a book or hear a song that pisses me off or where I'm worrying about whether my reaction to it is the same or different than anybody else's. I also try to take the time to explain stuff that I really do like, because it can help other people discover it as well, especially since things tend to resonate with me for how they are made as much as what they are.
posted by anildash at 10:55 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Someone above suggests 'becoming a critic' and I think there's something of value in that idea. If you try to think critically about what you liked and didn't like, what was done well and poorly, etc. it can lead to a better experience and judgment that's more _yours_ than if you just reach for a generic "like/dislike" feeling. Especially because your like/dislike feeling can be crowded by other things - how are you feeling, who did you see the movie with, did the actor remind you of your favorite uncle, and (as you've noticed) are you predisposed to like it because of other people's opinions.
posted by Lady Li at 12:20 AM on May 5, 2010

What you think because of a crowd and what you "really" think--to me, that's kind of a false dichotomy. You think because you think, and who cares if those thoughts came from the mouth of a critic? By accepting them, you're still making them yours.

Of course, if you're actively suppressing your opinions in order to fit in with the crowd, then we have more of a problem. But it seems you're trying to not be influenced by other people's opinions, which is a little silly. We're social beings, after all. Think about what others are saying (since they may know something you don't), decide if you like it, and then don't overthink the origins of your opinions.
posted by flawsekno at 12:44 AM on May 5, 2010

This micro-anecdote may be helpful.

Many years ago, I corresponded over email with a film critic (whom I will not name) employed by one of the major U.S. news organizations. Though not a household name, he was the sort whose name you would see on posters and such. (Not often—he tended to be acerbic and sarcastic, and wasn't easily impressed.)

He once told me that at least half, probably more, of the best-known film critics are complete hacks. As in, your grandma could do the job better. He never named names, but he did tell me that if I suspected anyone in particular, I was probably right.

Coming from one of the small number of critics I actively respected, this was insightful, and has stuck with me.

Another data point: the J. J. Abrams Star Trek movie is the highest rated of all the Star Trek films on Rotten Tomatoes right now. Scary, no? (Qualifier: Rotten Romatoes indexes all of the Joe Schlub's Personal Movie Webpages out there. But since Joe is about as qualified as at least half of the professionals.......)

Also, FWIW, I have never, ever encountered a music critic I trust. I consider music much too subjective to evaluate in that way.
posted by AugieAugustus at 6:08 AM on May 5, 2010

Learn how to make the thing you're trying to form an opinion on and preferably make a one of it. If you can appreciate what decisions were made during the process, you can compare that to the decisions you would make.
posted by Submiqent at 8:16 AM on May 5, 2010

I read a comment in a thread about music tastes that I think is relevant here. The commenter made the point that it doesn't matter if you like "music for middle school girls" or country music or whatever the music snobs frown down upon these days. What's important, the commenter argued, was how the music makes you feel. Same with whatever product you are consuming. It sounds like you're frustrated by the fact that the internet changes your initial reaction to things. Keep in mind, though, that all reviews are by people. There is no one "best" vacuum cleaner or one best "artist". Never feel like your opinion is invalid, because no one else can feel and react the same way as you to things.

That being said, I feel like I'm influenced frequently by reviews, in the same way that you described, but I tend to see it as a feature, not a bug. For instance, I had heard a ton about Atonement everywhere and decided to finally read it. When I was done, I was way underwhelmed. I went to go read the 5 star Amazon reviews. After doing that, I still kept my initial opinion - but at least I understood now where the people who loved the book were coming from. It's good to recognize other people's perspectives - as long as you keep in mind theirs are subordinate to yours.
posted by estlin at 6:57 PM on May 5, 2010

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