Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Choices You Make Today Affect You For Years

Today's decisions can become tomorrow's preferences.

People are often creatures of habit in the choices they make.  A brand of toothpaste that you start to buy as a college student can easily become the brand you purchase most often for the rest of your adult life. 

There are lots of reasons why you might stick with a particular brand for a long time.  For one thing, your early experience with a product might help you decide that you really like it, which can lead you to keep buying it in the future.  For another, in many situations, the actual differences in performance between brands are small, and so it probably does not matter a lot what you choose.  In that case, you may as well minimize the amount of effort you spend making a choice, and so buy what you bought last time.

There is also some evidence that the act of making a choice can influence your preferences.  Studies suggest that when you choose one item over another, the act of making a choice enhances your preference for the thing you choose and causes you to devalue the thing you reject.

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Of course, most studies that have explored this question have looked only at short-term changes in people’s preferences.  Most psychology studies take about an hour, and so the studies usually look just at changes in what people like over the course of that hour-long period.

An interesting study by Tali Sharot, Stephen Fleming, Xiaoyu Yu, Raphael Koster, and Raymond Dolan in the October, 2012 issue of Psychological Science looked at the effect of making a choice on people’s preferences 3-years later.

In their study, participants came to the lab and rated how interested they were in going to a variety of vacation destinations.  Those ratings provided a baseline.   One group of participants then made choices among pairs of vacation destinations.  The choices were set up so that some were easy choices where one vacation spot was already strongly preferred to the other.  The rest of the choices were set up to be difficult—the two destinations were equally preferred at the start of the study.  A second group saw similar pairs of vacation destinations, but the computer chose vacation spots for them.  Next, participants rated how much they liked each vacation destination again as a short-term measure of how choices affected preferences. 

Some of the participants were contacted about three years later and were shown the same set of vacation destinations.  Once again, they rated their preferences.

What happened? 

The strongest finding in these studies came from the condition in which people made hard choices between destinations they liked equally.  Soon after making this choice, they gave a higher preference rating to the destination they chose compared to the destination they rejected.  Three years later, people’s preferences for destinations they chose persisted.  They still preferred the destination they chose to the one they rejected.  People who had the computer select a destination for them showed no reliable change in preference either immediately or after a three-year delay.

When the choice was easy for people to make, a different pattern emerged.  When people made easy choices, it had no effect on their preferences right away.  Three years later, people’s preference for items they chose actually went down compared to the items they rejected. 

What is going on here?

A choice is difficult when you have to select from among a set of options that you like about equally well.  These difficult choices require attention and effort.  You may also feel a little uncomfortable making these choices.   After you make the choice, the same mechanisms that are involved in cognitive dissonance will work to make your choice feel consistent with your beliefs.  So, when you make a difficult choice, you will bump up your preference for the thing you selected and you will push down your preference for the thing you rejected. 

The fascinating thing about this effect, though, is that it can still be seen years later.  That means that choices you make today may be with you for years to come.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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