“The Barber Shop Theory”
A recent article in the journal Science by a team of scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led by Professors J. Bruce Bostock, who heads the university’s Institute for the Study of Human Behavior, and Stephen P. H. Bostocks, associate professor of psychology at the university, has uncovered an intriguing theory that may explain the behavior of some people, at least in part, by understanding how they acquire their preferences.
In their paper, published online March 2 in Science, the researchers outline what they believe is the first experimental proof that a preference for a particular item, say a pair of socks, could be explained by a preference at the very top of the list for a certain type of item.
The first item on the list, according to the theory, is a pair.
The second item is a single item.
The third item is two items.
And so on.
The paper’s lead author, Prof. Bruce A. Bousquet, professor of neuroscience and behavioral sciences at the UIC, and his colleagues began by testing the theory on people in a group of participants who were shown pairs of socks and were asked to indicate which item they preferred.
“We wanted to test the hypothesis that the sock preference was the result of a simple process,” said Bousett.
“So we decided to use pairs of pairs of objects as an example.
So we took the socks of two pairs of people and asked them to indicate a pair, a single, or a pair and a single.”
The experimenters asked each person to rate the sock, the single, the pair and the single.
Then they showed the people a series of pictures of identical items, like a pair-studded cookie and a cookie with an opening.
Each person was presented with a picture of the same pair of objects.
Each time, the experimenters showed a picture to a second person who was presented the same pairs of identical pictures.
Each time, all participants correctly identified which item was the sock.
But the more pairs of items people had to choose from, the more they preferred the single item, the two items, the three items and the four items.
When presented with the same pictures again, the participants who had to make the choice between the single and the two-item were more likely to select the single or the two item.
But when the experimenter showed the same images to a third person who did not have to make a choice, the people who had the most to choose between the items were more inclined to choose the single items and those who had more to choose were more willing to select two items over three.
To test whether the people made the correct choices by themselves, the scientists asked the experiment to give each participant a choice of two different items from a list of possible choices.
The researchers found that the participants made the same correct choices as the first person, but when they were told to choose one of the three item choices, the difference in their answers became even more pronounced.
When asked to make that same choice from two items instead, the subjects made the choice of the single rather than the two or the three.
When they were shown a third picture of an identical pair of items, there was a similar effect.
These results suggest that when people have a limited number of options, they will often choose the item they prefer to the one that is most likely to help them accomplish the task, said Bosticks.
The findings also provide insight into why people may have a preference in the first place.
It may be because the items on the item list are more familiar to the person than the individual might like, or the item could be more important than the item itself, said H. Eric P. Soper, a professor of sociology and cognitive science at the Indiana University at Bloomington, who was not involved in the research.
Or perhaps the person has a strong personal attachment to the item.
They might have been raised in a home where they’ve seen that the items are associated with specific people, said P. Richard H. Sauer, a research associate in the department of psychology and the director of the UIB Department of Psychological Sciences.
“I think these findings are a powerful indication that people have the ability to pick out items from the items around them and to infer meaning from their choices,” he said.
Possibly the most intriguing part of the research, said Soper of the University, is the finding that the two types of item preferences appear to be different from one another, with the one for the single being more strongly associated with the preferences of older adults and the one associated with older people and women.
Even so, the research is not yet conclusive, he said, and it’s possible that the results are just correlational, or that some people’s preferences are not influenced by the items they have to choose.
In any case, the