Free will isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, according to Israeli researchers. They say people may not have much control over what they like and dislike. That said, there may be a way to undo unwanted preferences, even phobias and addiction, by exploiting the fluidity of memory.
The standard scientific view is that people are born with few preferences. Most are thought to be conditioned by experience.
For instance, people may like a particular color because it appears on the packaging of a favorite candy bar, or they may dislike a name because it belongs to a weird uncle.
In the Israeli study, monetary gains and losses were used to get participants to prefer some Japanese characters over others. These preferences were later eliminated by changing the participant’s memories of the conditioning. At least, that’s what the researchers behind the study think was happening. The whole process took place subconsciously.
Published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the findings could one day be used to treat addictions and phobias, the researchers say.
“The take home message is that although preferences are a very strong form of learning, they are amenable to change via the destabilization of the underlying memories following their retrieval,” said Alex Pine, a post doctoral fellow in cognitive neuroscience who led the study at the Weizmann Institute of Science. “The question is: Could we use this technique to alter aberrant preferences, like those associated with addictions and phobias?”
Prof. Yadin Dudai, a neurobiologist at the Weizmann Institute, and Dr. Avi Mendelsohn, a researcher at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, oversaw the study.
For the love of money
Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov famously trained his dog to salivate in response to a bell by ringing the bell each time he fed the dog meat. Though Pavlov did not check, it is possible that beneath the salivation, the dog also learned to like the bell, to the extent that animals “like” things. The same experiment done with, say, rancid meat would presumably have conditioned the dog to dislike the bell. Human preferences are thought to be conditioned in the same way, which is why advertisers pair their products with sexy models and other desirable stimuli.
In the three-day study of 40 people, the Israeli researchers set out to look at how preferences are made and unmade when consciousness is left out of the picture. On day one, the participants played a computer game for money. In each round, one of several Japanese characters was briefly flashed on the screen, and the participants could press the spacebar in response. Pressing the spacebar for half of the characters earned the participants a shekel. Pressing the spacebar for the other half of the characters lost the participants a shekel. Not pressing the spacebar had no effect.
The characters were presented for only a fraction of a second, and between two other characters, so that the participants could not consciously identify what they were seeing. The participants were instructed to rely on their “gut feeling” to make as much money as they could in the game. As hoped, over trials, they picked the money-making characters more often than they did the money-losing characters, though testing showed they were not consciously aware of having learned anything.
On day two, half the participants played a reminder of the game. Then, all the participants played the original game again, with one difference: This time, regardless of which character was shown, pressing the spacebar was like a coin flip — earning the participants a shekel half the time and costing them a shekel half the time. The aim was to undo any conditioning from day one, and indeed, all the participants started hitting the spacebar randomly.
On day three, the participants played the original game yet again, this time just without money at stake. The aim was to test the participant’s behavior without teaching them anything new. Their spacebar clicking remained random.
Finally, the participants were shown pairs of “money-making,” “money losing,” and new neutral characters and asked which they preferred. The people who received the reminder on day two showed no preference, whereas the people who did not get the reminder still preferred the characters that had made them money on day one. The researchers say the results suggest that while the game on day two was enough to unteach the participants’ behavior, the addition of the reminder was necessary to unteach their preferences.
Scientists know that preferences, once formed, tend to remain relatively stable throughout people’s lives, powerfully shaping their behavior and decisions. After training his dog to salivate, Pavlov went on to eliminate the response over time by ringing the bell without feeding the dog. But eliminating the dog’s assumed preference for the bell would likely have been more difficult.
“Extinction training can undo some forms of learning, but preferences are typically resistant to this procedure,” said Pine.
The study showed for the first time that durable preferences can be created entirely unconsciously, suggesting that conscious learning may not be important to the process. Further, the researchers say, the study’s success in eliminating preferences may point to a promising new treatment for addictions and phobias.
The researchers think that the reminder game on day two of the study was the key to eliminating the participants’ preferences for money-making Japanese characters. They say the theory of memory “reconsolidation” provides a possible explanation. Research suggests that accessing a memory puts it into a temporary weakened state, when it is vulnerable to being changed. The memory must then be re-consolidated into memory, where it is again stable — at least until it is reaccessed.
Based on this theory, the very experiences that trigger relapses or phobic responses could be used as reminders to temporarily destabilize these hard-to-change forms of learning. For instance, smokers could be exposed to the smell of a cigarette, or people who fear flying could watch a flight safety video. Existing treatments for addictions and phobias might afterward be more effective, the researchers say.