Forget about Free Choice

by Bryant Su


Forget About Free Choice

You’re sitting down, and two drinks are put in front of you: a glass of orange juice and a glass of milk.

You’re slightly lactose intolerant, so you decide to take the orange juice, yet three minutes later you find yourself finishing the glass of milk while the orange juice sits untouched beside you.

When did that happen.

What if a person’s intrinsic preferences could be edited like a word document? Favorite foods, activities they enjoy, TV shows they like, all just variables that can be changed. While they can’t make it so that a Queen of Diamonds will trigger the urge to kill the president, research is beginning to reveal ways of altering a person’s choices through training.

At University of Texas at Austin, Tom Schonberg and Akram Bakkour are exploring this possibility.  Their study aimed to determine if the values people assign to goods can be changed through training.  First, subjects took part in an auction to gauge how a large range of different food items were valued.  In this auction, subjects, who hadn’t eaten for a few hours, were given three dollars to bid on various junk foods.  After being presented with all the options, subjects placed their bids on the objects one at a time. These items were then sorted into “high-value” and “low-value” categories based on how much money subjects bid on them.

Subjects then underwent cue-approach training. Cue-approach training is the association between a specific object with an auditory signal and motor response. Participants pressed a button when they heard a noise while images of items were flashed on the screen for 1 second at a time.  The study results found that items not reinforced by cue-approach training regressed toward the average for both high-value items and low-value items. Basically, high-value items became lower and low-value items became higher. Reinforced high-value items, on the other hand, were better able to retain their value in the participants minds. Even more suggestive, reinforced items retained that for about 2 months after cue approach training in continued test trials.


Image retrieve from Flickr Commons

In order to completely understand participants behaviors, researchers also used eye tracking to analyze their subject’s attentions during the auctions.  Eye-tracking is a way of seeing where a person’s gaze is directed by recording which way their eyes shift. After cue-approach training, subjects were observed to spend a significantly longer time looking at the cued items when offered the choice between a pair of items.

Reminiscent of classical conditioning, this study differed in one respect: there was no noticeable effect on the subject’s choice when the training involved only the sound. They concluded that the physical activity of pushing the button was necessary to have an impact on the subject’s choices.

The goal of this sort of training is not so sinister:  the hope is to be able to modify a person’s choices to remedy unhealthy habits, such as gambling, smoking, or eating disorders. The application would be to use training to create an aversion to objects or items through the training.

This sort of study basically involves the manipulation of people’s behaviors.  So while the current study has good intentions, it’s also important to recognize that if expanded, this type of behavior conditioning could be very dangerous.

Reference: Schonberg, T., Bakkour, A., Hover, A. M., Mumford, J. M., Nagar, L., Perez, J., & Poldrack, R. A. (2014). Changing value through cued approach: an automatic mechanism of behavior change [Electronic version]. Nature Neuroscience17(4), 625-630. doi:10.1038/nn.3673