Counterintuitive, Episode 5: Setup – You Don’t Always Want What You Want

It’s time for the fifth episode of Counterintuitive, the podcast that goes beyond common sense! This episode is (the first) part of a three-part series diving deep into the question of who we really are. You can find new episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, YouTube, or SoundCloud. Below, you’ll find the transcript of this episode with some references / further reading hyperlinks. The music for this episode comes from FreeSound, specifically these pieces:



“The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.” – George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman

Jane didn’t like to eat broccoli (and most other vegetables) when her parents prepared them for her. Probably most people can empathize with her, with broccoli certainly not being among the most popular food items for children. But of course there are exceptions. Judith, for instance, happily eats broccoli without complaint every time the school cafeteria serves it for lunch. We are used to differences between people with regard to their preferences, their behavior, and of course their personality. Individuals have the prerogative to differ from the average, to have their personalized characteristics. We expect to be able to put people like Jane into the category ‘picky eaters’ and contrast them with the Judiths of the world. There’s just one problem. Jane and Judith are actually the same person.


My name is Daniel Bojar and you’re listening to Counterintuitive, the podcast about things which are not what they seem to be. This episode is the first of a three-part series about personalities and preferences which tries to shed light on the mystery of who we really are. A lot of inspiration for these episodes came from the highly recommended book Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by psychologist Ray Kurzban. In this show, we’ll home in on preferences and we’ll do personality next time. I can’t tell you yet what the third part is about because we need this episode and the next as mechanisms of explanation first. Because, I assure you, if you don’t have that available, the thesis of the last part will just leave you outraged and you won’t even consider if there’s any truth to it. So let’s get started!


Here’s where we start: In the standard theory of rational choice, as defined by economists, a choice can be rational if and only if it is made based on a fixed ordering of preferences. That is the working basis and assumption most economists operate in. In a world of stable preferences in a neat hierarchy, in which you always prefer A over B in principle, choice can be rationalized and predicted. In such a world, people always want what they truly want. It’s easy. It’s intuitive. But is it our world?

To answer this question, we first return to our initial example of picky eaters. In a study conducted in Sweden, researchers around Claes Sundelin at Uppsala University identified around one third of the participating children as picky eaters. That in itself isn’t surprising. Surprising is the next thing. Sundelin and his team evaluated the pickiness of the children both at home and in school. Typically, you would expect food preferences, especially if they are strongly held, to be stable across contexts. Either you like a certain type of food or you don’t. But what they found is this: Of the contingent of picky eaters, only a quarter was categorized as a picky eater both at home and at school. That means three quarters of picky eaters, the vast majority, was only picky at one place, at home or at school, and was a normal eater in the other place.

Just think about how insane that is. These kids, up to this study, were given a certain education and have a given genome but that shouldn’t be different between the home and school. And of course it isn’t. So what makes the difference? Why do most children who are picky eaters restrict their narrowed food preferences to one setting? After excluding upbringing, genetics, and basically every other major factor usually used for explanation, only one thing remains: the current circumstances when children eat a meal. Put differently, the context. Because context matters.

Back in the 80s, research on hypnosis suggested that stimulating the imagination of subjects, by meditation, imagining scenarios, or memories, would make them more susceptible to hypnosis. The psychologist James Council at North Dacota State University decided to investigate this relationship a bit closer. Together with his colleagues Irving Kirsch and Laurin Hafner, Council did two experiments. In the first, he basically replicated the typical research: stimulating imagination, trying to hypnotize subjects, assessing hypnotizability. In the second experiment, they did nearly the same. With a twist. After stimulating the imagination of study participants, they led them into a different room for the hypnosis. This is important, that’s the only difference between the experiments. In one, both stimulation and hypnosis were performed in the same room. In the other, rooms were changed. In the first experiment, they could faithfully reproduce previous findings. Stimulating imagination increases susceptibility to hypnosis. Yet in the second experiment, they didn’t find any difference in hypnotizability, regardless of whether the imagination of participants was stimulated before or not. Changing rooms was enough to fully annihilate the effect of imagination stimulation on susceptibility to hypnosis. Or rather, changing contexts was enough to change outcomes. Because by changing rooms, study participants were led to the belief that the imagination stimulation was unrelated to the subsequent hypnosis. Council and his colleagues coined the term context effects for this type of phenomenon.

The findings of Council and his team were replicated multiple times and, consistently, it has been found that the stimulation of imagination only matters if study participants were aware that it was related to the hypnosis afterward. The same effect can be of course also found with topics other than hypnosis. That’s why, for instance, the order of questions in any survey or questionnaire matters, because the context will bias you while answering any subsequent question. Context, of course, isn’t restricted to psychology labs. It’s all around us. In every situation which we’ll ever be a part of, context is everywhere. Imagine asking someone how happy they are with their life in general while you sit with them in a sunlit café backyard with an Italian espresso and a biscuit in front of them, versus while you visit their old school where they were bullied for years. Context matters. And it influences our actions, preferences, and, as we will see next time, personalities.

Here’s a scenario where it should be relatively uncontroversial that you’re preferences are shaped by your current circumstances. In 2005 at MIT in Boston, the psychologist Dan Ariely, together with George Loewenstein, investigated the influence of sexual arousal on decision making. For this they compared a control group, which they asked to answer a series of questions under normal circumstances, with an aroused group of participants, which filled in the questions after starting to masturbate. These questions for instance included an assessment of the attractiveness of women of different ages or even just their shoes. Unsurprisingly, aroused participants assessed everything to be more attractive. Even the shoes of women were deemed erotic by the aroused study participants, with a score of 65 percent of the maximum preference. The biggest differences in preference between the control and the aroused group were in questions of having sex with someone you hate and a threesome with another man. Both had an absolute increase of 25 percent between the two groups. For the latter, the threesome with another man, the average preference of the control group was at 19 percent, compared with 34 percent – nearly double – for the aroused participants. And if that wasn’t enough for you, the attraction to animals also went up from 6 percent to 16 percent. So obviously your state of sexual arousal makes a big difference in your preferences.

And if that makes a difference, why shouldn’t other elements of your current circumstances alter your preferences? Of course they do. Take risk for instance. We talked about risk compensation in the very first episode of this podcast, but the perception of risk also influences our preferences. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman established this by demonstrating risk- and loss-averse behavior in their study participants. They did this by presenting the following problem to them: a disease breaks out and will kill 600 people, what should you do? Either you save 200 people by choosing treatment option A or, by choosing option B, you have a chance of one in three that all 600 people will be saved and a two in three chance that no one will be saved. Their participants overwhelmingly chose option A, even though mathematically both options are identical with an expected 200 survivors. If you now switch the phrasing and tell people that option A will kill 400 people (remember, before it was phrased as saving 200 out of 600 people) and option B leads to a one in three chance of everyone surviving and a two in three chance of everyone dying, participants now chose option B. Because people are typically risk-averse and take the safe option, except if a loss is certain, then gambling to avert the loss takes the stage. But it’s pretty troubling that a simple issue of phrasing can completely reverse our preferences.

In fact, our preferences are so easily swayed by external conditions that even seemingly irrelevant changes can have an effect. Imagine you’re in a store and have to choose between two chairs. One is comfortable but they only have it in a color you don’t like. The other has a color perfectly fitting your dinner table but is not really comfortable. You’re preferences are evenly split between these options. Then, the store clerk comes with a third chair which he just found in the back of the store. While it has the same unfortunate color as the first chair, it’s also really comfortable. But it’s twice as expensive as the first chair. Suddenly, your choice is clear to you. You take the first chair and leave the store. Think about this for a second. You introduce a third option, which is objectively worse than the first chair, and people still change their preference for one of the initial options which shouldn’t be affected by the introduction of another irrelevant option. That’s what’s called the decoy effect. The decoy effect has been found in multiple contexts in scientific studies, has been studied by neuroscience, and is regularly used in marketing to affect your purchasing preferences. The point in the chair example is that, with the introduction of the third chair, you create a so-called asymmetrically dominated option. Because the first and the third chair are nearly identical, only that the first chair is a lot cheaper than the third chair. This makes comparison really easy and suddenly it’s intuitive that chair number one is better in one respect than chair three. And as soon as an easy-looking choice presents itself to us, we grab it and run with it. That’s how easily our preferences can be changed by seemingly irrelevant details. Because if the clerk would have come back with a chair that is not comfortable but the perfect color and doubly as expensive as chair two, we would have an asymmetrically dominated option for chair number two and your preference would have shifted in favor of option number two. Effectively, in this scenario your intrinsic preference is entirely contingent on the next random chair the clerk brings forth. No fixed ordering of preferences.

Compounding all of this is another type of preference change, a longitudinal change, or change over time. In 2006, researchers followed participants over three to six months, with periodic assessments of their preferences, and found moderate changes over time. So even if you assess preferences in the same context, a psychology lab in this case, you can detect changes in preferences over time. Now, these are less dramatic than the context effects mentioned before but keep in mind that they have to be added on top. And, even more essential, the extent of change over time differed between participants. So the longitudinal preference variability seems to be an individual characteristic influencing this part of preference shift.

Another temporal effect on our preferences is the sequence of events. In a classic study, researchers asked participants for their preference of domestic appliances. After choosing one of two of the house appliances as a gift, the same participants, in a second rating, rated the chosen product higher than the one not chosen and additionally decreased their preference for the unchosen product. So not only the current context but also what happened before influences our preferences. Under the reigning paradigm, choices were seen as revealed preferences. But if preferences aren’t stable, then how could choices reveal them? Experiments such as the one just mentioned basically impose the conclusion that choices don’t reveal preferences but actually influence them. A related study from 2010 from Yale University confirmed this by assessing preferences. As in the previous study, participants, in this case children, had to choose between two similar items. Then, they were asked whether they preferred the rejected item or a third, similar, item. In accordance with the idea of choices shaping preferences, participants had no love for the previously rejected item and chose the third item. Yet when a different group of participants was confronted with this choice without having to choose between the first and second item before, the third item was no longer preferred. The preference of participants was contingent on their choice, not the other way around.

All this leads us to two intertwined questions. Two questions which, in slightly altered form, will accompany us in this three-part series. Which we’ll have to tackle over and over again. Because they’re not easy. They’re counterintuitive. Here they are: Do we have preferences and do we have stable preferences? Because ingrained in our mind is a generic person who simply likes X and doesn’t like Y. A person who prefers blue over green and who looks down on people that do certain actions. We think of preferences as attributes, lists of characteristics which we collect about people, and which help us understand our friends and colleagues. So, do we have preferences? Yes, of course we do. At any given time and place, we can give some indication of what exactly we want or don’t want. We can even list activities or things according to our priorities and resulting degree of preference. But do we have stable preferences, that persist across time, space, and context? Well, this one’s a bit more tricky. Because it’s absolutely true. Just not in the way you imagine it.

If we speak of stable preferences, what we typically mean is a core set of preferences held by the ‘real us’. That’s what intuition is telling us after all. We are a person, with preferences and a personality. And then, the changed preferences which I told you about before are just seen as aberrations. We might prefer to be spanked when we’re sexually aroused but that’s not the real us. The real us is freed from any undue influence from external sources and present for most of the time in any given day. It’s the baseline, the ground truth. Only, that notion is full of errors. Context is everywhere and every single day we are influenced by countless stimuli and environmental details. Being influenced is the norm. There is no ground truth in preferences. And, as a logical consequence of that, deviations from our supposed core preferences are the norm. What we want is dependent on our circumstances. Even preferences of one thing over another can reverse themselves if our surroundings change. Everything is in flux. What you want doesn’t only depend on who you are but also where you are.

Why then did I claim that we still, in a way, have stable preferences? We started with preferences as personal attributes. Now, we’ve reached the conception of preferences as a distribution, and a very wide and therefore widely varying distribution at that. Because the quality and quantity of your preference depends on your circumstances. You might say, the expression of your preferences is conditional on some context elements. If you go shopping on an empty stomach, your preference for double chocolate chip cookies increases. But what if the amount of preference increase is person-specific? What if, with regard to your preferences, your reactiveness to context elements is specific to yourself as a person, similar to the individual amount of preference change over time? Then, this could give you preferences which are overall stable, given the circumstance, but still can account for context effects, as long as you always have the same preference given the exact same circumstances. Yet for this, we have to give up the simplistic notion of preferences we currently hold. Preferences are not fixed attributes but processes, interactions between inclinations and circumstances. In the end, what you see is what you get. It’s not that some of the divergent preferences are more or less true than others. You may know the preferences of a person in a set of circumstances and miserably fail to predict their preferences in a different context, maybe one not involving you. If Jane doesn’t like broccoli at home, her parents mentally file the fact that Jane doesn’t like broccoli. Period. Yet preferences are not stable in the traditional sense but are processes and the context will influence whether Jane likes broccoli or not. What you see is not all there is. We’re different people in different contexts.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Counterintuitive! Be sure to check in next time when we continue this three-part journey with a foray into personality and how it fares in comparison to preferences. As always, you can find references and further reading for this episode in the show notes. If you like Counterintuitive, please promote it among your network and subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcast from. It does make a difference. A new episode will be uploaded every second Thursday. My name is Daniel Bojar and you’ve listened to Counterintuitive, the critical thinking podcast about things which are not what they seem to be. You can follow me on Twitter at @daniel_bojar or on my website, where you will find articles about more counterintuitive phenomena. Until next time!

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