“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
– Leo Tolstoy, Three Methods of Reform
Wouldn’t it be great to change what we like and dislike? Through modifying my own preferences, I’ve managed to increase my happiness set point, increase my extroversion, eliminate my akrasia, and adopt a secure attachment style. Making major changes like this might seem impossible, but I’ve done it and I believe it’s a learnable skill.
Preference changing takes the skill of habit formation to the next level. Habit formation is the most effective method of changing how we act. Preference changing goes a level deeper and changes how we feel. Consider an introvert who wants to meet more people but finds it tiring to do so. She can change or pick up habits that systematically push her to reach out and be more social, but she could go further by modifying her preferences so that she has an intrinsic desire to meet more people.
I used to love chocolate and ate entirely too much of it, and I wanted to reduce the amount I ate. I tried several unsuccessful approaches, including:
Willpower. Maybe overconsumption of chocolate was because of my weak mind – if only I could stay strong, then I wouldn’t succumb. But relying on willpower to curb my chocolate habit didn’t work, and had the side effect of making me feel like a failure.
Rationing. Then I wondered whether trying to eliminate chocolate entirely was too extreme, so instead I allocated myself small portions of chocolate throughout the day. This didn’t work either, as I found myself constantly cheating and eating bigger portions, or extra unscheduled snacks.
Access. Lastly, I tried to hide the chocolate, putting it into a plastic bag, in a locked jar in a locked drawer. This reduced the amount of mindless eating, but I found myself thinking about chocolate all the time. I merely displaced my physical affliction to a mental one.
My chocolate problem follows a common pattern where standard interventions fail, and even habit formation only fixes it temporarily while requiring constant vigilance. Preference changing can solve this kind of problem permanently, so we’ll be this as an illustrative example.
How does it work?
Changing our preferences means changing our identity. Our identity is a complex and evolving set of behaviors and preferences, which forms the core of our sense of self. Our brain is resistant to identity changes, for good reasons, so we have to approach obliquely.
Luckily, identity is multi-faceted, meaning that no single behavior or preference defines our identity. This means that we can isolate and examine the preferences that generate an individual behavior, then harness that knowledge to modify it. If we do this correctly, we won’t trigger automatic defense mechanisms that protect our identity. We’re merely remodeling parts of our brains, like a renovator replacing a dusty fireplace with a bookshelf.
How to change preferences
I have changed my own preferences by following these five steps.
To change a preference we must first confront its reality. We must abandon our fantasies and acknowledge that our current preferences are what they are. Although it sounds trivial, this step can take surprisingly long to complete, because it’s always hard to say goodbye to our dreams and familiar illusions. We need to be honest and accept that we have something we don’t like about ourselves.
I can’t pretend that I don’t like chocolate. I won’t get to my destination if I don’t have a firm grasp on where I’m currently at. After I’ve clarified and accepted my self-image, I will be thinking, “It’s okay that I like chocolate.”
To change our preferences, we need to deeply understand them. This step is hard work, and involves thinking things through systematically and finding as many indicators of when we like and dislike things as we can. We want to catalog our preferences in detail and think about what triggers our desire, and which attributes of our preferences the triggers act on. Skilled practitioners can approach this challenge with focus and determination and finish in a day, but most people will need to do it gradually over a few weeks.
I like chocolate, but that doesn’t mean that I want to eat it 24 hours a day, nor does it mean that I want to eat garbage-quality gold coin chocolate. I realised that I mainly like high quality 60-70% dark chocolate, and I like it just before lunch, during the afternoon lull, and after dinner.
Next, we need to increase the contrast between instances of the desired behavior and the current unwanted behavior. This is important because it expands our preference range in a way that is acceptable to our sense of self. We’re not directly challenging our identity; instead, we are gently suggesting that its range of behavior could be expanded.
To increase the polarization of my preferences, I bought a bag of some cheap white chocolate and put it into a ratty basket. This chocolate is unappetizing. Whenever I particularly crave chocolate, I put it my desk and imagine the plastic texture of this overly sweet chocolate on my tongue. After doing this for a while, I think, “I generally like chocolate, but there are some situations where I dislike it.”
Next, we reflect on whether our preference is a need or a want, and how that interacts with our conception of our identity. Do we need to be an introvert to feel authentic? Does Antonio need to eat chocolate to feel happy? Preferences are so hard to change because we assume they are part of our core identity. This step has the goal of detaching the preference from our identity, so we see it as optional.
I now think, “Sometimes I might want to eat chocolate, but it’s up to me to decide. There are no situations where I must have it.” Enjoying chocolate is no longer a part of my identity. Eating chocolate is just a behavior that I choose.
5. Mindfulness and consolidation
Once we’ve detached a preference from our identity, the final step is to examine why we engaged in the behavior in the first place. Why do I like chocolate only at specific times? I discover that I want chocolate due to certain triggers, such as a particular time of day or after performing a particular action. That suggests that the desire for chocolate doesn’t arise from within myself, but it’s caused by the environment.
My mindset is now, “I don’t like chocolate, but sometimes the environment tricks me into thinking that I like chocolate.”
Congratulations! Once we’re here, the only thing left to do is to be mindful and realize that sometimes we will fall into our old behaviors. That’s not due to any failure or moral weakness on our part, but a natural consequence of the environmental cues that we receive. Occasional reinforcement will solidify our new preferences and our old ones will gradually fade away.
Instant preference changing
We can now change our preferences about anything if we’re prepared to spend significant time and effort on it. With practice and careful self-reflection I have learned to collapse this process into a five minute routine. This requires accepting some challenging mental frameworks, which will be further detailed in my article on the four corner cactus concept.