PreferencesNot too long ago, someone asked me why I liked her — that is, why I found her attractive in a romantic kind of way. She didn’t like my answer.

Prompted by her dissatisfaction, I thought some more about it, and I decided I didn’t particularly like my answer either. It also occurred to me that certain kinds of questions seem to beget certain kinds of answers. “Why do you like me,” for example, seems to beget necessarily a laundry list of straightforward, conventional, and even cliche reasons as an answer. My answer was unsatisfying, I concluded, because it was the wrong kind of question to ask.

A somewhat longer time ago, someone else asked me why I didn’t like her — that is, why I didn’t find her attractive in a gooey on the inside kind of way. She also didn’t like my answer.

In this instance, I avoided answering the question directly, shrugging my shoulders and pleading it was unknowable. I could have, if I wanted, produced a laundry list of reasons, but I also knew that the list would not be a truthful answer to the question. If I actually had the gooey feeling for her, I knew, all the potentially hurtful reasons I might mention would be totally irrelevant to that feeling. In this instance, I refused to answer because I knew the laundry list was irrelevant to the question.

It turns out that both of my conclusions may be in align with our growing understanding of the brain.

Research indicates that the part of our brain that forms preferences is distinct from the part of our brain that generates reasons to justify our preference and actions. More importantly, our preference forming brain may be inaccessible to our reason giving brain. So, when asked to justify our preferences, our reason giving brain makes something up that makes sense to it, but may have no connection to the part of us that actually formed the preference.

David McRaney, my source for this research, summarizes the phenomenon in this way:

When you ask people why they do or do not like things, they must then translate something from a deep, emotional, primal part of their psyche into the language of the higher, logical, rational world of words and sentences and paragraphs. The problem here is those deeper recesses of the mind are perhaps inaccessible and unconscious. The things that are available to consciousness might not have much to do with your preferences.

One of the, perhaps, unexpected but measurable consequences of this research is that we can easily reason ourselves out of what we actually desire. For example, in one experiment, students were invited to choose and keep one of  a series of posters. One group of students was invited simply to pick the poster they most preferred. Another group was asked to justify their decision in advance of their choice. Six months later, the students, who simply picked their posters, loved them. The students who had to justify their choice ahead of choosing, hated them. Introspection, it seems, can work at cross purposes to our deepest preferences and desires.

This research, McRaney points out, challenges the value of introspection in many domains of life. Artists, for example, probably shouldn’t pout when a devoted fan can’t articulate why he loves their work. Theatre producers also might want to reconsider their efforts to stimulate at every turn a critical conversation about their latest production. Often, wordless appreciation is its deepest form. In the romantic context, it may also explain why people can reason their way into relationships which lack oomph and out of relationships with plenty of oomph, but no logical explanation for it.

It seems to me that lovers will always wonder about and inquire after the beloved’s feelings and intentions. Love is a roller coaster of euphoria and insecurity, and a Q&A about your mutual attraction is an easy way to flirt, to reinforce the mutual attraction, and to reassure each other of your feelings and desires. Of course, if the loving heart cares little for reasons, as this research suggests, maybe one shouldn’t worry too much about the exact nature of the reasons offered, so long as they are offered with conviction. Similarly, my recent experience suggests, if the beloved asks why you like her and is immediately critical of the reasons you offer, it’s probably a good sign that she really isn’t into you that much.

Live and learn. Live and learn.

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