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Why we like things - Journal of Interest
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10 Sep

Why we like things

Why we like things

One observation I made a little while ago, but was discussing with some friends last night, is about the reasons why we like things, and why our favourite things are different.  My view is that it’s because we each experience the world differently – that my world is different to your world.

Consider, for example, that my favourite colour is green – I simply prefer it to all the other colours.  This might be due to any number of reasons – for example, my brain might be slightly different in some critical aspect compared to people who prefer other colours, or I might have learnt to appreciate green somehow, or associate it with various positive feelings, etc.  The same might be the case for you and your favourite colour.  So, when asking why my favourite colour is green and yours is, say, blue, we can conclude that I must be experiencing something different to you when looking at green compared to blue.  If we both experienced colour in exactly the same way, then we would share the same favourite colour, because I would feel exactly the same feelings as you whenever we looked at the same colour.  Because we have different favourite colours, we know that we’re not feeling the same things.

This observation carries for all preferences.  For example, the reason I don’t like the taste of coffee is because it tastes differently to me (or rather, I experience it differently) than it does to a coffee-drinker.  In another example, if I have a preference towards treating people in a certain way, that is because contemplating the idea of treating people in that way strikes me better than it strikes someone who doesn’t share that same preference.  It even carries for beliefs: I believe the things I do because they seem to me to be the most likely to be true.  This is not the case for someone who believes different things to me, who, when thinking about the same ideas, does not think they seem particularly true; their experience of those ideas is different.1

This is a sobering thought when we consider how much of our lives are governed by our preferences and beliefs.  What we happen to like, and what we happen to believe, sets our course in life, and we spend it in service of them.2 It also engenders a certain empathetic response to those whom you believe to be guided through life by erroneous beliefs, or preferences that could result in harm to themselves and others (such as in the case of criminals).  Whilst for the most part seemingly arbitrary, what we happen to like exerts an enormous influence on us, but nevertheless we don’t seem to mind it.3

  1. This is another of the reasons why I don’t believe we have free will – that we are unable to choose our preferences or beliefs, preferring whatever happens to feel the nicest, and believing whatever happens to seem the truest. 

  2. Specifically concerning beliefs, if we are concerned with holding accurate ones then it would make sense to equip ourselves with the critical thinking skills that would enable us to have a more reliable sense of what does happen to seem truest. 

  3. Consider for example if you had the power to change your preferences.  Who out there would choose to like television shows they currently didn’t, to find attractive people whom they currently didn’t, or alter their life like this?  In general, I think we tend to like our preferences, whatever they happen to be.  Maybe we just get attached to them, or maybe the clue is in the word ‘preferences’ itself: We prefer x and we don’t prefer y, so why would we ever want to prefer y when we prefer x

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