The 75% Problem

I have this theory about people’s taste in entertainment and how it affects our relationships. For one thing, the emphasis on what we like rather than what we are like is so well entrenched by now that we all freely make judgments about people based on their favorite books, bands, shows, and films. That’s why we bother compiling and alphabetizing the lists of favorites on all our online social networking profiles, right? (What, you don’t do that?)

It’s an easy shorthand that tells you if you might get along with someone – “Oh, he likes The Decemberists, The Pixies, Miles Davis, Proust, and David Foster Wallace. I’m sure we shall be the best of friends!” In some very obvious ways, this sort of list-making is a good thing. After all, good friends do often share the same taste, and such a shorthand can be an efficient way of mentally tagging people who have something in common with us. Of course, in another obvious way, it leaves a lot unanswered for — the new friend who’s going to introduce you to a whole new world of be-bop or opera or avant-garde industrial noise.

The real problem, though, is The 75% Problem. You know the person with whom you — in principle, in terms of general taste — agree with seventy-five percent of the time? You both like guitar-encrusted indie music from the early 1990s and Charlie Kaufman and Modern Poetry, right? But then there are those moments where he can’t believe how much you hate David Bowie (“I mean, clearly you just do not get his music,” he intones, full of superior self-satisfaction), or he comes over and says,”oh, put on whatever music you want; I’m easy to please,” and then proceeds to tell you the specific chord breakdowns that Elvis Costello has allegedly stolen from The Beatles as each new track begins. Or, worse yet, he makes you watch Moulin Rouge because he knows how much you like “all that Postmodern stuff.”

At these moments, sedate and thoughtful discussion of the arts goes off the rails and irrational shouting and fist-shaking commence. You can be pleasantly discoursing on the various and many virtues of Pacific Northwest indie rock, and how much you both like The Decemberists and The Shins and Death Cab for Cutie and even The Dandy Warhols, but by god when conversation turns to Modest Mouse, things take a turn for the worse.

I mean, he just can’t understand how you could like all those other bands and not Modest Mouse, and you just can’t believe his failure to notice that the so-called musicians of Modest Mouse do not seem to know how to play their instruments, and he thinks he has an ace-in-the-hole with the fact (FACT!) that Johnny Marr now plays with Modest Mouse — the very same Johnny Marr of The Smiths, who are one of your all-time-favorite bands, OR SO YOU CLAIM — and you, fist alternately shaking in the air and pounding on the table, you DID know that Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths, was playing with Modest Mouse by god but YOU DID NOT CARE because Johnny Marr can go SUCK ON IT and MORRISSEY DOESN’T NEED HIM ANYWAY. See? Logical, civilized discourse has now left the building.

Let’s face it, these scenes are never pretty. The other day, my friend who has, on numerous occasions, poked fun at me for listening to Death Cab for Cutie, essentially called me a depressed fourteen-year-old hanging out in my parents’ basement — all because, apparently, although she had nothing much to say about their music, she sure had plenty to say about her perception of their fans, and, by extension, me.

In another example — one oft cited by me and perhaps already described here — I split up with a guy I had been casually dating after he failed to know any Bob Dylan songs.

“What is a Bob Dylan song I would know,” he asked me one morning.

After I proceeded to sing pretty much all of Dylan’s greatest hits in an effort to jog his memory, I decided enough was enough. The, uh, benefits weren’t worth the frustration, and anyway he was allergic to my cat, so it was really for the best.

It’s a good thing I just quietly ditched the Bob Dylan guy, because discussions of this sort become volatile sometimes. I have one friend with whom I share 75% of my taste in television, who can’t believe I don’t watch 24 (or, in the past, The Wire). He loves (LOVES! EVERY TIME WE TALK HE DOES THIS!) to denigrate my taste due to how much I love Lost.

“BUT YOU STUDY LITERATURE AND NARRATIVE! YOU’RE A WRITER! HOW CAN YOU WATCH THAT?” he will shout into the phone, fist pounding on a table somewhere in the background.

My response, ever careful to be rhetorically sound, is something along the lines of, “YEAH, well I am SO SURE that the narrative structure of FUCKING 24 is REALLY FUCKING WELL CONSTRUCTED!”

[Rhetoric Fact: this is a “tu quoque” logical fallacy, but clearly the offended me did/does not care!]

These incidents are all cases of The 75% Problem in play. I think when you share 75% of your general tastes and proclivities with someone, you feel comfortable in the fact that you basically like the same things. Then, when you make some comment about the new album from your favorite band, you expect some kind of shared enthusiasm, and when it doesn’t appear, you have a nasty surprise. That’s why the remaining 25% has the potential to become irrationally infuriating — as in the Modest Mouse case above. It would be one thing if you just didn’t like Modest Mouse, but hating Modest Mouse while claiming to like all those other NW bands is the problem. (And in these discussions, someone will always pull out the word “claiming,” as if people were either dishonest or uncertain of what they actually like!)

I believe it is The 75% Problem that’s at play in this now-weeks-old (and much discussed) New York Times article in which people discussed which favorite books would be dating dealbreakers. One interviewee had broken up with a guy who was too into Ayn Rand; another dumped one who had never heard of Pushkin. (In my opinion, the former is a greater problem than the latter, but a discussion of why would warrant its own post). There were dealbreakers of the too-pretentious or too-desperate kind, too, though: one poor guy who brought his copy of Proust to the coffee shop was instantly dismissed. Ironically, nothing seems more pretentious than rejecting a possible date for reading Pretentious Proust (i.e. “I want my date to be intellectual and well read, as long as he’s quiet about it!”), or, in the case of one interviewee, Virginia Woolf, which was characterized only as being “too Virginia Woolf”!

These literary dealbreakers, though, are the kinds of problems people living in New York (or in Zembla) have the luxury of citing. I have to say that in New Wye, if a guy knows how to read and/or write a complete sentence, and has actually read a novel ever, he is ahead of the game. A guy in New Wye whose favorite book of all time is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets would be quite a catch — this would prove him to be literate and would indicate that he is not one of those country-fried types who thinks reading as an activity is unnecessary at best and suspect at worst.

I mean, geez, let’s look at the big picture, right? My friend may have the embarrassingly bad taste to like David Bowie, but at least it’s not Céline Dion or Kenny G, one might argue. Logically, I want to agree with this, but, like I said, in the face of The 75% Problem, logic crumples.

I mean seriously, BOWIE? That prancing nancy in the sparkling pants whose lyrics sound like something off the reject pile of a high-school literary magazine? The one whose music is so absent of any talent that the only thing left is ONSTAGE SPECTACLE? What a FREAK.

What about you? Do have any accounts of The 75% Problem rearing its head in your relationships? Any dealbreakers, as illogical as they may be? Please to tell me.


  1. Hmmm, being a mathematician the 75% Problem interests me. In advance, I must disclose that I’ve never suffered from it, however. You see, my best friends are mathematics, fountain pens, my books, Led Zeppelin CDs, beer and Highland Park 18 Year Old Scotch Whiskey. You could argue that’s a lonely life, but I’m a pretty easy-going guy. I don’t get too frustrated with others’ idiosyncracies. I’m like the friendly stray dog that whizzes on your fire-hydrant, gives you a nice sniff, let’s you pet him and moves on more enriched for the brief experience. I’ve kind of always been that way – perhaps I never got to know anyone well enough to know if I agreed with only 75% of their world-view.

    I’m curious as to why the frustration builds-up though. Is it that the other person doesn’t conform to some pre-conceived or canonical ideal or is it just some kind of generalized frustration?


  2. I mean, he just can’t understand how you could like all those other bands and not Modest Mouse

    I may know this person. I was worn down eventually. I am now a fan.


  3. But in regard to deal breakers – I wouldn’t again date somebody too into metal because…well, other than Sabbath metal can suck it. Metallica? Yes, whoo, drop-D tuning GOOD GOD SOMEBODY TEACH THOSE PEOPLE THAT INSTRUMENTS CAN MAKE CHORDS AND THAT CHORDS ARE PLEASANT! Also, TEACH LARS ABOUT KEEPING TIME!

    I couldn’t date an ardent Paul Krugman fan, or anybody with a subscription to NRO or The Weekly Standard.


  4. Rand seems a bigger problem than other books, mostly because being too into Rand is a bit like being too much into the Bible, and we all know where that leads (*cough*closet case*cough*).

    As to Proust: um, why did he bring this on a date? This strikes me as the kind of thing one might do just to show off, like the guy in my Swedish class who brought a self-study Korean book with him one day, proclaiming how he was LEARNING KOREAN, TOO and that is was SO MUCH HARDER THAN SWEDISH. (That was how he talked, too, so EVERYONE knew HOW SMART HE WAS.) If he was dumped not for reading Proust, but for bringing Proust on a date in an effort to impress, then he is well-dumped, I say.


  5. I WAS GREATLY put off by your dismissal of Dave Brubeck sometime ago. Yes Coltrane is/was a god, but Brubeck is at least a kick ass mortal.


  6. Gotta agree 110% with Sillyak, except to add that Morello IS a god. Well, a demi-god at least. But you knew that.

    Ah, me. Such a deep topic. I’m like the proverbial mosquito at a nudist convention — I know what to do, but I can’t decide where to start.

    I even had to turn down my Industrial Noise (Evanescence, if you must know) to concentrate.

    I guess the first question is, does it REALLY matter if you’re in 75% agreement? Or is it that the 25% is diametrically opposed to your deepest convictions?

    And if you’re sure of your convictions, why worry? It’s like eating fish. You eat the good stuff and spit out the bones.

    Hang loose, as we used to say.


  7. I am not as easy going as I thought!

    I think no-alcohol drinking might be a deal-breaker for me. And no hanky-panky before marriage might kill it to. I have to try before I buy. I am sure there are some other things too.

    Perhaps the reason is we look for elements of ourselves in other people and, not seeing that, we get disappointed. Anyone?


  8. Timothy – The Modest Mouse “person” is actually a clever literary device, though I can think of at least 5-7 people with whom I’ve had similar conversations. One friend of mine from high school once offered to burn a particular Ben Folds CD for me, but then tacked on the rider that I also had to take a MM CD and had to “promise” to listen to it at least 3 times! People are CRAZY!

    Suomi – Yeah, it seems implied that he was trying to impress with the Proust, which I tentatively agree is retarded. (Retarded!!!) Nonetheless, the whole subject as presented in the NYT is a bit ridiculous. ALso, your classmate sounds SO SMART!!!

    Silliyak – hey, I LIKE Brubeck. I merely said something about his stuff being based on math and not on soul. I stand by that.

    St. A. – YES, it matters if you are in 75% agreement, that is why it is The 75% Problem. If you don’t already have a broad basis of commonalities, the theory is totally irrelevant. (See below)

    John – Again, *I* think the reason is this: I think when you share 75% of your general tastes and proclivities with someone, you feel comfortable in the fact that you basically like the same things. Then, when you make some comment about the new album from your favorite band, you expect some kind of shared enthusiasm, and when it doesn’t appear, you have a nasty surprise. That’s why the remaining 25% has the potential to become irrationally infuriating….

    Or, another way: it’s all about the assumption/expectation of comfort and familiarity. When that expectation is met 75% of the time, and then, suddenly, 25% of the time it is not met, our stability and comfort are disrupted. It is the sudden reminder that the person is not like you; is Other.

    And! Your dealbreakers are legitimate, lifestyle-type dealbreakers. What about dealbreakers of taste, for example: “I would not date a person who doesn’t watch television” (true, actually) vs. “I would not date a person whose favorite show was Everybody Loves Raymond” (also true).


  9. V – Ah, I thought you had a real person in mind. Somebody who may or may not be Tim needs to improve his reading comprehension skills. I also agree with your matter-of-taste deal breakers. Sometimes I wonder about my beloved because she doesn’t like baseball and watches Sex And The City.

    St. A – Evanescence is proof that there is no God. Our love will never be.


  10. Vague:

    But can not the 25% include unknown (and pleasant!) surprises?

    Re: the dealbreakers of taste – are you asking me?

    I mean I don’t think conflict over a brand of beer or sports team is going to push me one way or the other. I suppose (for me) lifestyle related issues trump taste issues. I mean, if a pretty French girl doesn’t like, say, Zeppelin, there’s always headphones…but if she’s got a problem with an evening of wine and romance, well…that’s about all there is to say about that!


  11. Oh man, I used to have the 75% problem with Modest Mouse. Then one of those MM friends actually tacked on the same rider as you identified, after I badgered them for weeks on end about giving a shot to Neil Young’s “Tonight’s The Night.” In the end, Modest Mouse did win me over but Neil made no inroads.

    75% of married life is coming to grips with the 75% problem. She has “had it” with Radiohead while I can’t see why there has to be a Death Cab for Cutie. My enduring love of NWA butts heads with hers of ABBA. I like chorizo tacos and she always wants to put celery in food.

    Headphones and separate lunches tend to work things out.


  12. St-Albert, 100% on Morello, have you seen the U tube clips of him?

    Vague vague vague, so young, so much to learn.
    HEY EVERYBODY! Alfina says math is SOULESS! (THAT ought to get you some hate mail 🙂 )

    Would it help if he found examples of 5/4 rhythm in Africa which inspired him to experiment with odd time signatures?


  13. Timothy – That is SUCH a relief!

    Sliliyak – Haven’t seen the YouTube clips, but one of the advantages of being older than dirt is that I’ve seen him live, in his prime — more than once.

    Vague – Well I wouldn’t say Brubeck is all math (the time-signature stuff was just a phase) but he does admittedly tend towards the cerebral rather than raw emotion. Esoteric chord progressions, and that annoying “stuck record” thing he does when he wants the audience to applaud (or else he won’t stop!). [OK, maybe that’s not really why he does it, but it IS annoying.]

    But that said, the group could swing! And Paul Desmond was certainly one of a kind. But about as unlike Coltrane as you could get.


  14. Danimal – Oh, dude, Radiohead. It hasn’t happened yet, but I am sure to get into a fist-shaking match with someone about that sometime. I have so many, and yet so few opinions about them. Maybe theres some mutual exclusivity between Radiohead fans and DCFC fans…

    Silliyak- Not really. What form of American music doesn’t have its roots in African music? There’s nothing special about that. What bugs, though, is the implication that Africa somehow equals soulfulness. That’s a cultural assumption which may warrant some thought. Like, I also heard one time that white people can’t dance, and Asians are smart at science!

    St. A – Cerebreal — see that’s exactly what I am talking about.




  15. Jazz is such a gusher of disagreement that I’d say it’s more of a 42% problem in that realm of taste. I mean, I have fist-shaking matches with the stereo when playing certain cuts or albums by artists I like. You know, like why did Wayne Shorter think “Birdland” was a great song to play? Why did Coltrane decide it was okay to start playing soprano? We had seen eye to eye and then — no.


  16. D- true, very true. I have shaken my fist at Coltrane for that soprano sax phase, too. I mean, wtf, dude? At least, though, one has to appreciate it when others like Jazz in general (barring the Kenny Gs of the world). So many people just blanketly hate it.


  17. St_Albert, I’m also older than dirt and saw them live. Played alto myself (had Take 5 memorized) Yeh I’m white and can’t dance, oh well. Gave it up because I was too technical and had no soul. That and I hated “The Dues”, drunken Bar Mitzvahs… “Can you play Hava Nagilah?” (sp) blech!

    AtV, what you DO have that I appreciate is articulate passion. That’s almost all I want (in a blog) I LOVE it when you shake your fist like that.


  18. Been thinking some more about the 75% / 25% problem, and it seems to me that if I understand what Vague is saying, the discomfort comes from the fact that the 75% agreement fails to predict agreement in the other 25%. An extrapolation problem, if you will.

    And maybe that’s why it doesn’t bother me. Having spent a lifetime in scientific research, I have been conditioned to find the _failures_ of a model to be more intersting and more fruitful than the _successes_. It might or might not have been Isaac Asimov, who stole it from Thomas Edison, that said something to the effect that the true sound of discovery is not “Eureka!” but rather “That’s odd..”

    Of course in most cases of 75/25 oddities, the only discovery to be had is “Hmm, I thought you had better taste than that.” But sometimes you can learn something.

    Oh, and sorry if I have now un-hijacked the thread. Much as I enjoy talking about Jazz. 😀


  19. Silliyak – Thanks. That makes me feel bad about all the fist shaking, though! (Nonetheless, the fist shaking does prove my point a bit!)

    St. A. – No, exactly! Note how you call the 25% a failure. And also “interesting.” Or, as we say in lit crit, “telling.” It’s sometimes too telling when such a failure occurs.

    On the brighter side, though, sometimes those things tend to be quirkily endearing / endearingly quirky.


  20. OH AND ALSO! I am so glad that Timothy and St. Albert will not be a love match, Evanescence or no Evanescence. Did you all know that St. A. is MY DAD???

    [And also, please to note how cool it is that my dad comments on my blog about Jazz. He is the one who sent me to jazz camp, etc.]

    [Also also, hi Dad!]


  21. No, it’s Joe Morello, drummer for the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

    Re Rage Against the Machine, I think I may have traumatized my dad with all the blasting of “Killing in the Name” that emanated from my bedroom when I was 16 and angsty.


  22. Ah, Dave Brubeck makes more sense. I could see how a father might get traumatized by his teenage daughter playing RATM…does your Dad still have all his hair?


  23. I’ve broken up with women for not being quite as asexual as I would like. And for also not having penises. Perhaps this makes me shallow.


  24. V – Well, he does like Jazz so your father is obviously a man of some taste (I lack essentially all Jazz knowledge, but will listen to it gladly whenever it’s played), but the Evanescence is really a deal breaker. You’ve lucked out this time, Vague!

    St. A – Thinking about it, we have that same thing in economics (except when the model fails we blame the data). Out of sample forcasting is, as we kids say, a bitch.


  25. Timothy:

    Re: forecasting – I’ve never understood why economists attempt this. You can’t predict random processes unless you want to dispense with the Markov property. Actually even if you do there is still some room to cheat; non-Markovian processes can be cast in a Markovian representation, but that’s getting too technical. The best you can do is assume some type of autoregressive behaviour
    (1 or 2 periods) and try for some confidence intervals, but, you know tomorrow the market can always crash and Markov wins again…

    I’ve always favoured the idea that there’s an asymmetric behaviour wherein the (recent) past has some influence (e.g. current price level depends on the price at time t-1) but, obviously, the future doesn’t. Anyways, not a math blog so I’d best shut up.


  26. John – Hubris? Because in some cases if you structure your model right you can do better than random guessing? I vaguely remember Markov from back in the day, but it’s honestly been four years since I did any real economics. There is a lot of distributed lag in macro, but you know, a lot of economic work is of the “doing blah increases bleh by bloop” variety.


  27. Vague:

    I’m still pondering this 75% problem you’ve posed. I’ve found a quote that expresses what I want to say better than I could say it:

    … truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.

    So, basically, don’t we in a sense actually need the 25%? Isn’t it actually less a problem 25% than it is a necessary 25%?


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