Photo: Rodney Smith, Three Men with Scissors No. 1, Reims, France, 1997
How are our habits, preferences, and tastes formed? It turns out that they are not only consequences of the choices we once made but also shape our future choices themselves. And not only positive but also negative. Thus,we get used to avoiding something that we once already rejected since childhood, preferring it to something new…
PREFERENCE AND CHOICE: AN INVERSE RELATIONSHIP
At one time the journal Psychological Science published a study by American psychologists from the University of Pittsburgh, who studied how human choices are formed in infancy. Scientists had more or less figured out with adults by this time. It would seem that an adult should make choices based on some sort of lived experience, conscious or unconscious preferences.
However, everything is not so simple here because there is a two-way relationship between preference and choice. The choice is usually perceived by people as the best choice and they tend to suppress regrets and doubts about its correctness. Eventually, the choice begins to form a “preference matrix”: time after time a person chooses exactly what he once liked.
This is how tastes and habits emerge, which are then not so easy to give up. We all remember Pushkin’s famous quote “habit is given to us from above: it is a substitute for happiness”. It turns out that it is just as difficult for an adult to voluntarily give up a habit as it is to give up happiness.
However, later it turned out that humans do not have a monopoly on this psychological “option”. Observing monkeys scientists discovered a similar behavioral mechanism in them. We make choices and they also “make” us. But when and how are the foundations of this mechanism laid in humans? When and why do we become dependent and unfree from our “free choice”?
THE FIRST EXPERIMENT: THE “CONSERVATIVES” OUTNUMBERED
Psychologist Alex Silver suggested that the mechanism of inverse influence of choice on our preferences is established from early childhood. Together with colleagues he conducted a series of experiments in which 169 children participated – from 10 months to 1.5 years. The experimenters put two three-dimensional figures in a transparent box,: colored cubes, balls, pyramids, and so on.
At the first stage, babies were free to crawl up to the box and make a free choice giving preference to one of the two toys. For example, an infant, choosing from two figures, preferred a ball. Then at the second stage of the experiment he was shown the following pair: the balloon he had already chosen and some new shaped toy.
And again the child chose the ball, avoiding any alternatives to the option he or she preferred once. This experiment was conducted many times with different children and on different samples. And, of course, there were exceptions to this rule.
For example, in the experiment involving 21 children, 16 chose the “old” toy a second time and only 5 chose the “new” toy. The next time there were 26 children, 19 were “conservatives” and 7 kids were “innovators”.
THE SECOND EXPERIMENT: GIVE ME FREEDOM!
It turns out that the second choice in favor of a new toy was made on average by about 15% of children. Of course, this could not be just a fluke. Psychologists suggested that in this case some of the kids preferred the new object to the previously selected simply because it was more interesting to them.
And then they modified the study: kids were shown any random figure, which was selected for them by experimenters, then the figure was removed and presented in a pair with another toy, new to them. It turned out that it was not just a choice that mattered to infants but the ability to make it on their own!
Of the 29 children who participated in the second experiment, 16 chose a new toy rather than one that had been shown to them in advance by adults. In the second sample of 22 kids, 10 of them preferred to make their own choice.
That is, for about half of the children the preferences resulting from the choice were formed only if this choice was made independently. Otherwise, they did not have any preferences at all.
THE THIRD EXPERIMENT: I WANT TO KNOW EVERYTHING!
It was also a modification of the first experiment but with opaque boxes. Having shown the infant two figures in advance, they were placed in boxes, which were then rearranged. As a result, the child did not know exactly where and which toy was located, and he or she had to choose not a toy but a box.
The experimenter showed the toy and then took it away and offered to make the next choice: between that figure which the child had not chosen before and a completely new one. In the first group 25 out of 43 children preferred the new toy and in the second group 10 out of 18 children did. That is, approximately half of the kids needed to make it consciously in order to form preferences on the basis of their choice – they needed to know exactly what they were choosing.
THE FOURTH EXPERIMENT: THERE IS NO GOING BACK TO THE REJECTED!
By modifying the third experiment American psychologists decided to find out how do the preferences formed on the basis of the previous choice affect the subsequent choice. When the child crawled up to the opaque box of his choice, the experimenters discreetly switched to a figurine. As a result, the baby did not receive the toy, which he had chosen independently initially, but had the opportunity to get acquainted with it and play for a while.
Then the researchers presented the child with the originally chosen toy, which he had no idea he had chosen, and the new one. As a result, 21 out of 30 infants chose the new one. That is, the formation of preference was influenced only by the obvious choice the child thought he or she had made not by the actual but once rejected choice. The preference for the new option was determined not by its novelty but by the fact that the choice had once been made in its favor.
It turns out that just like in adults, children from a very early age begin to form the dependence of choice on preferences. Moreover, it does not require much experience in making decisions because the options once discarded as a result of choice are rejected “automatically”.