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These notes were first presented at The Developing Group 5 Feb 2005

Preferences: What and How We Like

Penny Tompkins and James Lawley 

Let’s start with some definitions from the Collins Dictionary:

To like (From Old English):
1. to find (something) enjoyable or agreeable
2. to be fond of
3. to prefer or wish (to do something)
4. to feel toward; consider; regard (e.g. how did she like it?)
5. to feel disposed or inclined; choose; wish

A like - a favourable feeling, desire, preference
(also, likes and dislikes, liking for)

To prefer (from Latin ‘to carry in front’)
1. to like better or value more highly
2. to promote (over another)
3. to select, choose or opt for an alternative
4. to favour one over another

A preference
1. the act of preferring
2. something preferred

The experiential process we are pointing to here is the capacity of a living organism to attach a value or valence to a distinction, i.e. to like something (more or less) and/or to prefer one thing over another. This capacity can manifest itself in three ways:

1. A like/dislike for some experience
2. A preference for one thing over another
3. Either of the above can also be to some degree (i.e. on a scale*)
1. I like apples.
2. I prefer apples to oranges.
3. I like apples very much but I prefer bananas a little more.

Our working definition of the process of preferring/liking is:

The self-generated valance that is attached to a perception, memory, expectation or other imaginative construct such that we are predisposed, biased or constrained to favour or disfavour those experiences. 

Noticing the relative degree of liking enables us to compare and prefer one experience over another.

From an experiential constructivist viewpoint, it’s not the something in ‘the world out there’ we like or prefer; rather, as a result of the unique history of our experiencing, we have a relative penchant or predilection for our own perceptions and imaginings.

Note that the meaning of ‘like’ we are referring to is the one used in the clean

And where would you like to be? And where would you like me to be?
And what would you like to have happen?

We are not referring to the other meaning of like (similarity), as in: And that’s like what?

It can help to make distinctions between like/preference and need and want/desire. In Symbolic Modelling terminology, these are regarded as different kinds of relationships between perceiver (X) and perceived (Y):

X likes/prefers Y (over Z).
X needs Y.
X wants/desires Y.

Obviously, different people associate different meanings and experiences with these words. Even with one individual there will often be great overlap and ambiguity. And these words can be combined in a variety of ways, e.g.:

I need to be loved but I’d like to want to love myself.

Richard Davidson, Director, Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, University of Wisconsin-Madison in Destructive Emotions, p. 202, says:

We make a distinction between the circuitry in the brain associated with liking - enjoyment - and the circuitry associated with wanting. Often these two go together, so that we want things we like. But in craving, the circuitry associated with wanting appears to be strengthened and the circuitry associated with liking appears to be weakened. Because our sense of liking or enjoyment declines and our wanting increases, we want more and more and we like less and less. We just keep wanting - but we need more to enjoy it as much. This is a major problem that underlies craving. There are many examples where the liking circuit has been dramatically disrupted in forms of addiction.

We maintain that almost everyone (in the West at least) has had experiences which corresponds to the following descriptions (even if they give them different names):

Needing is the state of requiring that a lack or deficiency be satisfied. Usually individuals do not experience needs as a choice, but as a more basic drive or urge.  Problems arise when there is a conflict between needs, wants and likes.

[Note: “And what needs to happen for ...?” is not asking what the person wants or would like, but rather, what is required for “...” to happen — independent of the perceiver’s wants and likes.]

Wanting/desiring involves volition/agency for something — or for more/less of something.  Usually individuals perceive themselves as having some choice about their wants.

Liking/preferring is simply a leaning, inclination, bias, aversion, avoidance towards or away from something — either for its own sake or in comparison with something else. Almost all choices, decisions and wants presuppose a liking or preference — but not vice versa.

Finally, there is something that can transcend all three.  Consider:

“I like to drink, I need a drink, I want a drink — and I am not going to.”

We call this ‘in the best interests of myself (and others).’

In A Universe of Consciousness, Nobel Laureate, Gerald M. Edleman and Giulio Tononi use the word ‘value’ in much the same way that we use like/prefer. They conclude that valuing one experience over another is a prerequisite for memory, learning, development and consciousness (Basic Books, 2000, pp. 87-91):

How can a selectional system achieve its goals without specific instructions?  It turns out that the necessary constraints or values are provided by a series of diverse phenotypic structures and neural circuits that have been selected during evolutionary time.  It is important to stress that value is a precondition for arriving at a perceptual or behavioral response.

In higher vertebrates, a series of diffusely projecting neural value systems appear to have evolved that are capable of continually signalling to neurons and synapses all over the brain.  These systems, whose importance vastly outweighs the proportion of brain space they occupy, often produce a sudden burst of firing whenever something important or salient occurs to the animal.

Sophisticated interactions among value systems related to pleasure, pain, bodily states, and various emotions are possible and are likely to govern cortical responses.  The effects of value-dependent learning can range from alignment of auditory and visual maps in the brain stem of the barn owl to the exquisite distinctions made by a connoisseur of wine or the emotional responses of a guilty person.  Value and emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, are obviously tightly coupled and are central to conscious experience.

We predict, that connections will be found that allow the responses of the ascending value systems themselves to be modified during learning experiences.

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy since 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. They have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
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