How do our choices influence our preferences?

“If I picked it, I must like it, right?" What shapes our preferences? An American research team attempted to answer this question by studying how infants make choices. This study, published in Psychological science, shows that sometimes we may justify our decisions after the fact to avoid what is known as "cognitive dissonance."

We make choices on a daily basis (even if it is just deciding what to eat). Sometimes, we choose things we like, but other times, we like things because we have chosen them. According to L. Feigenson, who co-authored the article, this inverse reasoning could explain these unconscious inferences that we all make: the first: "I chose this so I must like it;" the second: “I didn’t choose this other thing, so I must not like it.” A specialist in child development, Feigenson, along with other colleagues, turned to infants to explore the potential roots of these arbitrary choices.

189 babies ages 10 to 20 months participated in this series of seven experiments using a free choice paradigm. For example, in one phase, the team offered the babies different objects. Two types of brightly colored cubes (whose attractiveness had been thoroughly tested beforehand) were placed far away from one another, giving the young subjects plenty of space to move toward the one of their choice. Once the babies had made their selection, the experimenter retrieved the two cubes and offered the babies the cube they had not selected the first time along with a new cube. So the babies now had a choice between the toy they had not chosen the first time and a totally new object. What do you think the babies chose?

The results show that 73% of the babies chose the new cube. The authors believe that this illustrates that preferences can be shaped by an initial choice, however arbitrary. This means that, even very early on, we have a tendency to dislike things we did not choose, even if we did not really have a preference initially. The study reinforces previous research on cognitive dissonance, which shows that, in adults, an option that gets left unchosen in the beginning will be less appreciated later on, and therefore discarded again if it's used in another choice paradigm. In addition, in another experiment, the researchers were able to show that babies did not demonstrate any particular attraction to novel objects. So it seems likely that their choices were guided by the rejection of the initially discarded object.

In conclusion, the study’s authors state that, “choice shapes preferences—even without extensive experience making decisions and without a well-developed self-concept.” To refine their research on the development of choice in infants, the team decided to focus on choice overload. Indeed, having too much choice can be challenging for adults. But what about babies?
Source: Alex M. Silver, Aimee E. Stahl, Rita Loiotile, Alexis S. Smith-Flores, Lisa Feigenson. "When Not Choosing Leads to Not Liking: Choice-Induced Preference in Infancy”, in Psychological Science, Oct.2020 // John Hopkins University website: “Babies' random choices become their preferences”: https://hub.jhu.edu/2020/10/02/babies-prefer-what-they-choose-even-when-random/

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