Retry things you don’t like (Exercise #16)

May 21, 2006

The purpose of this exercise is to learn more about why you like some things and don't like others. Preference is a very powerful force in our personalities, and by taking it apart a little and looking to see which mechanisms are at work when creating your preferences, you can learn to fiddle with the algorithm a little to make sure you like things that you actually want to like, and that you don't like things that you don't want to like.

Sounds complicated, but a very important aspect of preference (and desire in general) is that there are two levels to it:

  1. What you want
  2. What you want to want

You might want chocolate, but want to want salad. You might want television, but want to want exercise. When thinking about this exercise, try to figure out if the thing you are retrying is something you want, or something you want to want. The happiest life is one where you both want, and want to want, the same things while also not liking the things you don't want to like.

The sources of like:

What causes us to like something and what causes us not to like something? Are things inherently likable and dislikable, or is there something that happens between the thing and yourself (a relationship, or an aesthetic) that creates a likable or dislikable quality to emerge? I argue the latter. Here are a few things that might influence your judgement of a new thing:

  1. Do you already like or dislike this thing? If you know that you dislike brocolli, you will most likely continue to dislike it each time you come across it, even if you do not taste it each time.
  2. Do you already have a preference for the general class of thing? If you come across a new green vegetable, and you have an existing dislike of green vegetables, it's likely that you will apply the general rule to the specific new vegetable.
  3. Does the environment or group your in have a preference? If you are in a group that strongly prefers sipping expensive wines, and you are relatively new to the field of wine-tasting and have no overwhelming preference for cheap or expensive wines, you may be influenced to adopt the group's preference for expensive wines. Likewise, if you live in a liberal city, you will most likely adopt liberal views. This happens because the environment will influence the evidence and data you receive for making a preference… you will only get good evidence and data about expensive wines when you're around people that love expensive wines, and you will only hear bad data about conservative viewpoints when you're around liberals. It's not that you necessarily adopt the views of those around you, it's just that the environment filters the information you receive about the thing being judged to favor the decisions that the group made.
  4. Is there pressure to form a quick opinion? In some social situations, making a decision is difficult because none of the choices stand out as distinctly better than the others. For example, when choosing which new blockbuster movie to watch on a Sunday afternoon. In these situations, people with preferences are rewarded by being decision makers and leaders. It doesn't really matter which option is taken, as long as it provokes action in the group. After a decision is made, it's then much easier to confabulate reasons that it is the best option, strengthening the power of the preference that was originally weak.

In this way, preferences can be created by cascading down a series of decision making systems. The interesting thing is that because preferences are reinforced each time they are invoked, what quickly began as a weak preference will strengthen over time into a much more powerful preference. The possibility then exists that there are very strong preferences in our own personalities that may or may not justify the strength of their preference.

Identify a few strong preferences of your own

I used to strongly dislike zoos. It all went back to one childhood experience where I felt bad about an animal at a zoo. Over the years, disliking zoos became "a thing", if you know what I mean. A thing that felt as much a part of me as my sense of self. I was a zoo-disliker. I was a also a Halloween-disliker. I was an avocado-disliker. However, once I started retrying these things, I often found that the only reason I continued to dislike them was because I had disliked them at some point in the past.

By letting go of that past preference, and the opinion that blossoms from it, I get to let the object cascade once again down the waterfall of experience to see if there was any continuing evidence supporting the preference. In the case of zoos I discovered that my dislike of them was a little lopsided and that while I may object to some of the principles behind the caging of beautiful natural animals, that I could enjoy learning about animals and engaging them in person. My preference, it turned out, had been more positively reinforced by the personal satisfaction I got from stating the opinion and being the kind of person that cared for animals than it had by the actual zoo itself. There's a strange kind of pride in preference. Which isn't necessarily bad in itself, but it might be worth investigating which things you store your pride in… are they all things you want to take pride in? And are you consistently interested in the object of pride? In the case of zoos, why did I take self-righteous pride in not supporting the enslavement of animals when I took opposite pride in eating meat? It's important to notice inconsistency in yourself and acknowledge it, not necessarily to reconcile it right away, but simply so that you can learn to not take yourself and your preferences so seriously.

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