The term preferences is used in a variety of related, but not identical, ways in the scientific literature. This makes it necessary to make explicit the sense in which the term is used in different social sciences.
In psychology, preferences could be conceived of as an individual’s attitude towards a set of objects, typically reflected in an explicit decision-making process (Lichtenstein & Slovic, 2006). Alternatively, one could interpret the term “preference” to mean evaluative judgment in the sense of liking or disliking an object (e.g., Scherer, 2005) which is the most typical definition employed in psychology. However, it does not mean that a preference is necessarily stable over time. Preference can be notably modified by decision-making processes, such as choices (Brehm, 1956; Sharot, De Martino, & Dolan, 2009), even in an unconscious way (see Coppin, Delplanque, Cayeux, Porcherot, & Sander, 2010).
In economics and other social sciences, preference refers to the set of assumptions related to ordering some alternatives, based on the degree of happiness, satisfaction, gratification, enjoyment, or utility they provide, a process which results in an optimal "choice" (whether real or imagined). Although economists are usually not interested in choices or preferences in themselves, they are interested in the theory of choice because it serves as a background for empirical demand analysis.
"Preference" may also refer to non-choices, such as genetic and biological explanations for one's preference. Sexual orientation, for example, is no longer considered a sexual preference by most individuals, but is debatable based on philosophical and/or scientific ideas.
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- Brehm, J.W. (1956). Post-decision changes in desirability of choice alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52, 384-389.
- Coppin, G., Delplanque, S., Cayeux, I., Porcherot, C., & Sander, D. (2010). I’m no longer torn after choice: How explicit choices can implicitly shape preferences for odors. Psychological Science, 21, 489-493.
- Lichtenstein, S., & Slovic, P. (2006). The construction of preference. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Scherer, K.R. (2005). What are emotions? And how can they be measured? Social Science Information, 44, 695-729.
- Sharot, T., De Martino, B., & Dolan, R.J. (2009). How choice reveals and shapes expected hedonic outcome. Journal of Neuroscience, 29, 3760-3765.