My Favorite Things: What Does Your Choice of Milk Say About You?

Posted inDesign Thinking

I put oat milk on my morning cereal nowadays.

That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

But, it’s true.

How did this happen?

I enjoy a bowl of cereal in the morning. My favorites are bite-size mini-shredded wheats (not frosted!) and Cheerios. Most times I’ll add half-a-banana to the mini-wheats, or I’ll have just plain Cheerios (oh, maybe I’ll splurge and throw in a few raisins!)

For 99.9% of my life, I’ve eaten those bowls of cereal with either whole or 2% milk (mostly the former).

As I (ahem) aged, I found my reaction to milk was changing. I was never lactose intolerant but I did find I was experiencing some gastric reactions to milk over the last year or so.

What to do?

In supermarket trips, I noticed a new (to me) product in the dairy aisle, A2 milk, that said it, “may help avoid stomach discomfort in some people.” Tried it. It tasted fine and my experience confirmed their highly qualified claim about gastric reactions.

Then, I noticed oat milk in the dairy case. Hmmm… what the heck is “oat milk?” I thought. Turns out it’s not milk at all, of course, but the liquid that results from straining a slurry of milled whole oats soaked in water. Voila, oat milk!

I know this is an intriguing story… but why am I writing about it in My Favorite Things?

Have you tried oat milk?

No? Still using 2% on your Froot Loops?

It turns out that our willingness to leave behind established behavior to try something new is one of the keys to understanding our individual personalities. Psychologists saw this willingness-to-try-new-things as one of the broad clusters of attitudes and behaviors that came to be called the Big Five Personality Traits. They termed this willingness, “Openness to Experience.” Like all Big Five traits, Openness is assessed on a five point scale, from Very Open (+ +), to Neutral (0) to Not Open (- -).

We all know some people who are Open to new experiences and others who are Not Open. Who wants to go to the new Vietnamese restaurant? Someone who’s likely Open to new experiences. Who goes to one of the same two restaurants every time they dine out? Someone who’s likely Not Open to new experiences.

Openness, like every other psychological characteristic, is never absolute. In other words, even the most Open to new experience person is Open to some things, some of the time, but not Open to other things at other times.

I may have been Open to trying oat milk on my cereal a year or so ago, but that doesn’t mean I’m Open to new ideas about vaccine efficacy. As with all psychological factors, Openness to experience is contextual… we all have when/when not differences in our Openness. But, we also exhibit general patterns of attitudes and behaviors that are characteristically more or less Open.

When’s the last time you left behind one of your favorite things (whole milk on cereal, in my case) to try something new? When’s the last time you changed your mind about an idea you’ve held for a long time?

Those may seem like trivial questions. But, if we stop and think about it for a moment, we find that one of the biggest challenges facing our world is our relative willingness to re-consider established beliefs.

I mentioned that I’m not Open to new ideas about vaccine efficacy, for example. That’s not entirely true. I would be Open to changing my beliefs about vaccines if presented with reliable evidence that those beliefs would benefit from revision. I would not be Open to changing those beliefs based on a few unsubstantiated social media posts. That’s my “when/when not” on vaccines.

Our characteristic patterns of Openness also strongly affects the speed at which we adopt new technologies. Very Open? Probably an Innovator, but more likely an Early Adopter. Not Open? Maybe Late Majority or Laggard.

The Rogers model helps us understand the way new things enter into culture. Cultural changes are never random, nor do they befall us like plagues. Trends happen because individuals choose to take up new behaviors. And when we examine the history of cultural change, there are clear patterns in how humans move from one practice to another. The Rogers Adoption Curve gives us a lens to view those patterns.

W. David Marx describes how newness moves through culture in his new book, Status and Culture:

Sixty years before the Beatles moptop haircut, social scientist William Graham Sumner seemingly predicted how it would rise and fall: “A new fashion of dress seems at first to be absurd, ungraceful, or indecent. After a time this first impression of it is so dulled that all conform to the fashion.” In almost all instances, new behaviors begin as an exclusive practice of smaller social groups—whether elites or outsiders—and then eventually spread to the wider population. (p. xv)

One of the clearest ways to get a sense of your own approach to the world is to think about where you typically fall on the Openness to Experience continuum. This will help you determine if you’re living in ways that’d you’d really like to change (Very Open) or if the last thing you want in your life is more change (Not Very Open). Here’s a popular Big Five Personality Test to help you get a clearer picture of your general tendencies.

No matter what you learn, you’ll have a chance to make a choice about how you approach new things/ideas rather than living out an unexamined pattern of behavior that you might never have considered before.

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.

Photo by Madalyn Cox on Unsplash.