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Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Choice of Mugs and the Issue of Preference

My friend Michelle would like to give Bow a special mug that he can use for those chilly days when hot chocolate is the drink of choice. Michelle has exquisite taste, and she has picked out eleven beautiful images for Bow to look at so as to better understand his personal preferences.  It's not that she can necessarily get him exactly one of these mugs, but if he tells her which one he likes best, or arranges them in order of preference, then she will habe some idea about Bow's general preferences when it comes to teacups and mugs. So the question is which one does Bow prefer and how on earth am I going to get him to express his preference?
Choice Number 1: B for Bow

He could choose mug with the letter "B" for Bow.

Bow might like this cup with a blue bird in stylized rendition.

Or how about this cup and saucer with the words MORE LOVE ?

This one, which is mostly floral, reminds me of our Blue Willow china set.

Or how about this one with the giant blue polka dots? Or the one with two deer covered in flowers?

I decided to make a video and to number the eleven mugs for ease of choice.

I showed the video to Bow, but he was so much more interested in playing on the keyboard of the laptop than in looking at any of the mugs on the screen.

This brings us to the many ways in which attempts to prove what Bow knows have failed so far. It's not that Bow is not smart, and it's not that he isn't interested in using a computer. It's that he's never interested in using the computer in the way that I want him to and for the purpose of answering the question that is being posed.

There are several different, but related issues:

1) Bow may not have a preference as to his choice of mugs.
2) Even if he does have such a preference, he may not see any immediate benefit to him in expressing that preference.
3) He may not see the question or its answer as having a very high priority on his list of things to do.

You would think that being asked about your preferences would be one of the easiest sorts of tests to take, but even the standard question of "what is your favorite color" may be hard for those people who don't actually have a favorite color or are not sufficiently introspective to determine what that color happens to be. The clip embedded below from Monty Python and the Holy Grail illustrates this point.

Preferences are a tricky issue. Those with strong innate preferences find it impossible to understand people with no strong inner preferences or with only socially mediated preferences. Those who seek to manipulate others by means of rewards or punishments find it confusing that not everybody is equally easy to manipulate. Even on penalty of death, not everybody will answer the "favorite color" question correctly. 

 Intelligence tests assume that the test subject will want to do well on the test. Objective test writers sometimes forget that the subject may know more about the question than they do, and hence that their questions about the air speed of unladen swallows are inadequately phrased.  Tests based on rewards for correct answers assume that the subject will do anything for a reward, even read the mind of the test writer to figure out what answer was meant to be correct. Those who are incapable of being bribed to do that are often presumed to be stupid. Sometimes that is true, but it isn't always true.

Of course, maybe Bow just does not know how to operate a computer. Maybe a computer with reward dispensers could guide him through the process step by step, without his being aware of being manipulated into learning, so intent would he be on getting the reward. That's one plan of action. But what if he doesn't want the reward? Wouldn't we actually need to find out what he wants first, in order to properly bribe him? 

If the reward is a beautiful, artistically crafted mug, my guess is that Bow will not be induced to do anything the teaching program prompted him to do. I'm thinking that maybe his choice of a mug depends almost entirely on what's in the mug, and almost not at all on how the mug looks. But this does not mean that he will do anything, if only the reward is food. 

Bow is a complicated, intelligent being. He may not be an aesthete, but that does not mean he does not have standards of conduct for himself and for others. He may not share with me every preference he has, but it does not mean that he hasn't got any. They just may not be along lines that would make him an easy target for manipulation.

Here is a snippet of  conversation I overheard recently: "They tell you that high school will be hard. That the work will be hard. But it's not the work that is hard. What they don't tell you is that it will be hard to care how well you do. It's just so hard to care..."

Bow cares about a lot of things. But it would be very difficult to tease apart those things that he cares about that would make him want to do well on a test. 


  1. I think Bow will like which ever cup he selects. As you said, you can put something good in it, and that will be what he cares most about. S

    1. Hi, Julia. I agree. He will like whichechever one he gets, which is another way of saying he has no preference.

  2. Not sure why an S showed up in my last comment. Typing things on my phone is kind of funny, at times.

    1. Yeah, I understand. The same thing happened to me when I was replying to your comment. When I tried to write "whichever" it came out "whichechever".