The societal implications of indulging preferences.

A recurring theme of this blog is that humans are peculiar creatures. One of our peculiarities is that each person has personal preferences for just about everything and anything. Name anything and you’re likely to find that people will have large and subtle variations in how they prefer it. Food, cars, clothes, weather, games, and of great importance – other people.

It’s the last one that’s especially interesting because technology has enabled us to rapidly refine our preferences in others and quickly form a community with them. I’m not sure that’s such a great development.

The evolution of choice

Food

In general, I wonder why humans have honed their preferences to such sharp edges. I don’t see that it serves any teleological purpose. Food may be the best example. No two people, at least no two people I’ve found, like exactly the same food. A quick walk down a grocery aisle will reinforce the duplicative nature of products? Do we really need 50 jellies or 60 different bags of salad?

Barry Schwartz writes about the paralytic effect of having too many choices in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice.  The paradox of choice, sometimes called the tyranny of choice, is the observation that people comfortably choose among products when the choices are limited, but at a tipping point the choices become so numerous that the person is overwhelmed and makes no choice.

It’s an interesting concept, but my take-home lesson from Schwartz’s work is that people still like choices- lots and lots of choices – just not too many. There are people out there who simply love the mint flavored, boysenberry bacon jelly with ghost peppers. I prefer grape.

I’m not suggesting that soylent green is preferable to limitless food choices, but the individualization of preference is remarkable. And I’m not even going to mention ordering at Starbucks!

Fashion

Need I say more about the diversity of preferences here? We’ve long past the point were clothes are worn because they protect us from the elements. No, we use them to choose how we represent ourselves to the world. And sometimes, for reasons opaque to the self, we just like the way we look when we pass a mirror.

Cars

In his 1922 book My Life and Word, Henry Ford wrote on page 72, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Clearly, that wasn’t a barrier to the success of the Model T and would be viewed as a bizarre suggestion today if cars came in only one color or one trim package.

In 2017, there were 275 [1] different base -car models being sold. I don’t want to research all the other options, instead, let me make some assumptions the main choices one might encounter; Exterior paint choices: 10, Interior trim packages: 5, Power train Options: 3, Model options: 4. The choices would be the product if the individual choices, 275*10*5*3*4=165,000. With those many customization choices available, a car buyer can get exactly what they want. But ask him or her why they made a particular choice you’re like to get the template answer, “Because I liked it.”

Unlike other animals, humans are finely honed preference machines

I can think of no other species on earth with our profound proclivity for preferences. It’s hard to imagine a squirrel rejecting one ear of corn because the shape of another was more appealing. Maybe our indulgence of preferences is simply because we have the luxury of being able to choose.

We won’t starve if our choice is between beef and chicken. The real fun comes when we have to decide how to prepare the chicken. We’re going to eat it one way or another and we can choose from one the 20 million recipes returned in a Google search for “chicken recipe.”[2] You want to an apple pie? Google has more than 3 million recipes ready for your review. [3]

Why are preferences bad?

In and of themselves, having preferences isn’t a bad thing. And if it were, they wouldn’t be going away any time soon. People will always have preferences. The challenge is when we indulge our preferences in a social context.

We’ve seen this play out in school cafeterias across the country for decades, it’s not hard to see the self-segregation that typically occurs, especially in non-private schools that may still have a modicum of diversity. African American kids will sit at one table, white kids at another, jocks may mix it up and have African Americans and whites at the same table, cheerleaders will be at their table, and so on.

In the cafeteria, it’s just a preference to be with people like “me.” I can accept that as a current reality of human nature and also because when the lunch period is over, the kids go back to their classes in heterogeneous groups with the opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas, beliefs, and cultures. I mean, that’s what would ideally happen. It may not, but at least the opportunity would be there. Those opportunities are dwindling.

Social media and the plethora of multimedia communication modes has spawned a new phenomenon is the last few years – the information cocoon, and they’re polarizing and fragmenting society at an alarming rate.

Walled of from the rest of the world – silkworms in their cocoons

Technology has profoundly changed everything

Before social media burst on the scene, there was still a chance for people with different backgrounds to find each other and interact. The pairings weren’t always perfect. Two people meeting in person for the first time may find that they didn’t agree completely on all the main issues in their lives. So, what did they do? They talked to each other. Imagine that – two people with different ideas talking to each other. As incredible as it may sound in today’s world, those two people could become friends and still not have 100% concurrence of their preferences and ideas.

In today’s acerbic world of vulgar twitter attacks, Facebook rants, the weaponizing of unfriending in Facebook, and the existence of cable channel entertainment shows knowingly passing lies for truth, people are able to pick sides with their smartphones. There’s not the need to talk to anyone since all you really need to know about a group is to read their twitter feed or follow their hashtag.

The thing is that technology has made it nearly effortless to form positive feedback loops among like-thinking people. We no longer have those conversations with a person with a slightly different perspective. Instead, We curate our follower lists and Facebook friends to include people whose preferences are already closely aligned with ours.

It feels comfortable because the nature of a positive feedback loop is that actions tend to reinforce other actions. That’s what creates the information cocoons and once inside a cocoon it’s cozy, everyone seems smart, normal and right about everything because they are a mirror of you and your own beliefs.

Built by the silk of indulging our preferences, nothing good comes from information cocoons. It may seem reassuring to be in one, but it’s actually contributing to the escalating fragmentation of society. Technology has made it far too easy to create our own cocoons and nearly impossible to escape once we’re in one. But, shouldn’t we at least try?


[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/200092/total-number-of-car-models-on-the-us-market-since-1990/

[2] Search – intext:”chicken recipe”, https://www.google.com./search?q=intext%3A%22chicken+recipe%22

[3] intext:”apple pie recipe”. https://www.google.com/search?q=intext%3A%22apple+pie+recipe%22


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s