- We choose what we like, but some research says that we also come to like what we choose.
- If this were the case, we could learn to like what we should and end struggling for self-control.
- This research was shown to be wrong. Our recent study shows that past choices do not really change tastes.
- Your preferences for familiar options are stable. Preference formation for unfamiliar options might not be.
Wouldn’t it be great to get your children to like their greens instead of asking for pizza? Or to get yourself to like working out in the morning, without a struggle?
Common sense says that people choose what they like. Surprisingly, some research in psychology suggests that people also come to like what they choose, even if they didn’t like it before.
The argument might sound familiar. If you force your child to practice the violin or eat greens every day, at some point, her tastes will change, and she will eat more healthily or engage in rewarding and fulfilling activities all of her own accord. No struggle needed!
So, how long do you have to insist until you actually like doing 20 push-ups every morning?
Do choices change preferences?
For half a century, the literature in psychology investigated a phenomenon called choice-induced preference change, which essentially means that you could get to like what you choose, as long as those choices were yours. In those experiments, people first evaluated certain options, say different artistic paintings or potential holiday destinations. For example, many experiments used ratings (“on a scale from one to ten…”). Second, people faced pairs of options and had to make a choice. For example, all other things equal, do you prefer a weekend in Rome or a weekend in Paris? Then, a bit later, participants in the experiments repeated the evaluations from the first step.
Researchers found that the evaluations in the third step tended to change. More often than not, what had been chosen in the second step was reevaluated higher, and what had not been chosen was reevaluated lower. For instance, people might first evaluate a weekend in Rome as six and a weekend in Paris as seven. However, when asked to choose between Paris and Rome, they might actually choose Rome. Then, when asked to reevaluate the options, they would rate Rome as eight and Paris as six! So you learn to like what you choose. Some experiments even tricked people into making certain choices, and the effect was still there. It’s the violin practice all over again: “But you love playing the violin!” Repeat it often enough, and your child will start actually liking it, right?
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Those experiments were built on a design mistake, which shocked researchers and was even reported in the New York Times. The mistake is subtle. After all, lots of clever people failed to notice it for 50 years. Essentially, people make errors in their choices all the time, so everything is always about trends and averages. But both the evaluations and the choices reflect the same preferences, so if you choose Rome over Paris, it is quite likely that your initial ratings (Rome: six, Paris: seven) were just an error, and all that we are seeing in the new ratings (Rome: eight, Paris: six) is the correction of that error. In scientific jargon, the choice of Paris or Rome is not randomized, and it contains information that is confounded with the evaluations.
In a new study published in the journal Experimental Economics, my coauthor Georg Granic and I have examined this question with a new, confound-free experimental design. We use economic bets: do you prefer a 50% chance of earning $10 or a 75% chance of earning $8? These questions are important, because they reflect how people face risks in their economic lives (for example, with investments). But there are usually no right or wrong answers because some people are more risk-averse than others: as in the case of Rome vs. Paris, it is all about preferences.
With one exception. Do you prefer a 50% chance of earning $10 or a 40% chance of earning $8? There is only one correct answer here (the first one), because there is no tradeoff: it’s more money with a larger probability. Those are decisions under “dominance,” and people usually get them right.
We used this to manipulate what people would choose in a first step, that is, we tricked them into making the choice we wanted. Some people chose 50% of $10 because the alternative was, say, 40% of $10. Other people rejected 50% of $10 because the alternative was, say, 50% of $12. This way, we randomized who chose or rejected a bet. Then, in a second question, we offered people a choice between the original bet (say, 50% of $10) and an alternative with a tradeoff (say, 75% of $8). If the first choice changed preferences, more people should choose the original bet in the second choice if they had chosen it the first time than if they had rejected it then.
And… they did not. There was no difference. This study was preregistered, which means that the entire design and planned tests were public before we collected the data. The sample size was large (840 participants overall). Also, the journal evaluated the design before running the experiment. There is simply no way to deny this evidence. “Choice-induced preference change” is simply not there.
Familiar vs. unfamiliar options
Does this mean that it is useless to try to change your kid’s preferences? Well, yes and no. We used very familiar (and, one could say, relevant) choices: economic bets, which were also paid in the experiment. Previous studies used unfamiliar and hypothetical choices, like artistic paintings or holiday destinations. What we can say is that past choices for options you are familiar with (like money and bets) are not going to have much of an impact on your preferences. You are still going to need self-control to decide to work out in the morning (sorry!).
For unfamiliar options (new stuff), however, that might be another story. According to cognitive dissonance theory, our brain tries to reduce the tension between two simultaneously-held views. If you attend a course and the topic is hard, you might come to like the topic more to reduce the tension between the unpleasantness of the course and the fact that you chose it, as long as you did not have a clear preference before. But the third course on a topic that you dislike might not change your preferences at all. So if you want to get your kids to like their greens (and not just eat them when forced to), you are better off tricking them, err... trying that as soon as possible.
Choice-Induced Preference Change and the Free-Choice Paradigm: A Clarification, Carlos Alós-Ferrer and Fei Shi, Judgment and Decision Making, 10(1), January 2015, 34-49.
Does Choice Change Preferences? An Incentivized Test of the Mere Choice Effect, Carlos Alós-Ferrer and Georg D. Granic, Experimental Economics, 26, July 2023, 499-521.