Monday, January 7, 2008
Reflections on Hedge Trimmers and Hummers
Many people have posted comments here and on other sites about my call to ban hedge trimmers and Hummers. And most are not happy about the idea - taking me to task for being weak willed and/or opposing the free market. I salute those who are stronger willed than I am. But I think more are like me than them. Our weak wills are not however a function of lack of moral fiber but, as I argued, a much more subtle feature of our make up that leads us to overweight the present over the future and the concrete over the abstract. As to the free market, I am struck by the selectivity of such complaints. Nearly everyone supports restricting the free market when it comes to product safety. But I think the more important issue is this: the complaints sidestep the central point I was making. We don't come to the market with a set of fixed and stable preferences that we seek to maximize. A striking experiment worth noting is this: William Kunst-Wilson and Robert Zajonc (Kunst-Wilson, William and Robert Zajonc (1980), “Affective Discrimination of Stimuli That Cannot Be Recognized”, Science 207: 557-558) have shown than familiarity of the most innocuous nature can produce a preference bias. Subjects were exposed for 1 millisecond to each member of a set of 10 irregular octagons. The 1 millisecond exposure length had previously been established to be too short to produce anything better than chance results in a recognition memory test in which the subjects were asked to discriminate the previously exposed stimuli from novel ones. However, when subjects were asked to make pair-wise preference judgments between random pairings of the previously exposed stimuli and novel ones (both of which were irregular octagons), a statistically significant preference for the previously exposed stimuli was demonstrated. (16 if 24 subjects preferred the old stimuli to the novel ones but only 5 of the 24 recognized them.) Kunst-Wilson and Zajonc used this data to argue that we have the capacity to make judgments non-cognitively and their research has become central to a debate about whether cognitive representation is necessary condition for emotional responses to stimuli. The conclusion I want to draw is different: how mere familiarity affects preferences and does so without our even knowing it.