Imagine walking into a supermarket and seeing the thousands of items on display simply as colored objects of different shapes and sizes. Imagine this as if you were a mobile video recording device, registering the physical stimuli of the store’s items.
Given that the typical American grocery store ranges anywhere from 12,000 to 40,000 square feet and stocks between 40 and 50,000 items, we might describe this experience as a moment of “overwhelming disorientation.”
Fortunately, we do not have this disorienting experience when we go grocery shopping! (Although we’ve heard vague approximations of it when new arrivals from other countries describe their first trip to a megamart!)
We’re not disoriented in the supermarket because we are entering a world that is organized in familiar terms. Store designers have created an environment in which we can locate and select items that meet our needs. The “differently shaped colored objects” are divided into discreet areas: fruits and vegetables, different varieties of meat and fish, canned goods, baked goods, beverages, dairy, paper goods, cleaning materials, and the like. Without these categories, grocery shopping would be impossibly chaotic.
Internal Organization: Immediate
But, external categorization only goes so far in reducing shopping chaos. Even more important are the internal categories that we use to guide us through the store. Very few of us would ever consider traveling through every aisle of the supermarket on every trip. Instead, our path is defined by the trip’s purpose: to acquire the items on our implicit or explicit shopping list. We don’t need to consciously decide whether or not to go down the Indian food aisle, for example, if we “know” that we don’t need any of the items on those shelves. Each trip to the grocery store has a guiding purpose(s).
Internal Organization: General
This “knowing” is a special kind of awareness that we use constantly throughout our day. Sometimes we might call it “intuition” but it’s even less well-defined than the word implies. We simply know that our current intentions do or don’t require us to act in certain ways. Just as we know that driving from point A to point B does not include going to point E.
We focus on exploring the store for the things we care about.
Without this important element of our internal navigation system, every action we take would require a conscious decision. This would be the cognitive equivalent of seeing objects in the store as simply different shapes and sizes of colored things. The result? Massive cognitive overload.
Our internal care-driven navigation system helps us give different weights to different options depending on our goals, without the need for conscious deliberation and decision-making.
Grocery stores are not the only place where use care-driven “navigation” to help us move through the world. Most of the time we are unaware of this internal orienting system and simply rely on it to guide us through the world in pursuit of our intended goals. Walking from the parking lot to the grocery store, we don’t consciously plan a route that will get us to the front door safely. Instead, we count on our internal care-driven navigation system to help us make the trip quickly and without being clipped by the car backing out of a parking spot.
Internal Organization: Curatorial
Once inside the store, it’s as if we switch our care-driven navigation system over to a new set of frequencies.
Now we focus our “attention” (how exactly do we increase our focus on things?) on the task of selecting items from the countless options on the shelves. Just as we did when walking through the parking lot, we rarely “pay attention” to every detail of our environment. Instead we allow ourselves to be guided by our care-driven goals: we are here to purchase a small subset of what the store has to offer. Those are the things we care about most during this shopping trip.
Because the store has been designed with an appreciation of our shopping objectives, and because we do not simply perceive differently sized and colored objects, we can move quickly through the store guided by their external organization and our combined specific and general systems.
But, there’s a third system at work as well: your favorites.
Think of your favorites as the things you care about the most in any particular category.
We may think of our favorites as the things we like in various categories. Which, of course, they are. But they are also something else, maybe more important. Favorites are our environmental editing tools. They are a real-time care-driven set of curatorial tools to help us manage the demands of our increasingly complex world.
Imagine standing in front of the peanut butter shelf of your local supermarket. The array of choices is staggering. Smooth, crunchy, super crunchy, with jelly, organic, 8 ounce jars, 16 ounce jars, a dozen different brands. The permutations are mind-boggling.
But, you have a favorite peanut butter! (Jif Super Crunchy, please!) That favorite is the only peanut butter I care about on that shelf. My job in that moment is exponentially simpler than it would be if I had to decide amongst that dizzying array of options: find the 8 ounce jar of Jif and move on.
This is what are favorites are for: to help us make choices in a world full of options. They are the things we care about most. They guide us and help us reduce the “cognitive load” of modern life. They’ve become favorites for many reasons (which we tell ourselves lots of stories about), but once we’ve established them in the categories we return to most often, they help us curate the world and focus our energies elsewhere.
Maybe most important is what our favorites tell us about ourselves. If you want to know what you really care about, think about what your favorite things tell you about yourself. There are substantial insights about ourselves hidden in plain sight in the mundane choices we make every day. All we have to do, is think about them.
Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.