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Background & Considerations -The Problem of Labile Preferences


One of the most impressive capabilities of homo sapiens – and the American version of the species – is our ability to solve complex problems. We have contributed in leadership ways to the establishment of an advanced civilization that might be unrecognizable to our cousins of a few centuries ago. Could the brilliant Thomas Jefferson have possibly believed his eyes when American astronauts walked on the face of the moon?


But to these impressive credentials we must add some startling limitations. Sometimes, in the face of major challenges – we become as dumb as a bag of hammers


There are many reasons why a savvy and solution-oriented populace sometimes goes dumb. Psychologists point to “functional fixedness” as one cause. Functional fixedness occurs when experts or people who are experienced in addressing one type of problem … routinely overlook novel solutions because they are fixated on one routine type of solution. Another commonplace cause of going dumb is when our values or preferences distract us to the point that we overlook alternative solutions. This is especially true in the context of problems in which a political solution is required. People have different values and these differences stimulate us to have different preferences. Without a willingness to compromise … problems cannot be solved in a diverse society.


An element of the solution must address how the combatants can be persuaded to accept the solution. In fact, a restatement of the question might be: by what mechanisms or procedures can you entice opposition parties to compromise their most cherished principles for “the good of the country?” The very statement of the issue screams the insidious nature of the conflict. If your cherished value is that government spending must be accommodated to government revenues and if you believe increasing revenues is not an acceptable tactic for achieving the contemplated accommodation – then you are not going to perceive any compromise as being for “the good of the country.” How do we create a solution that gets beyond this impasse?


We have a history of many politicians – maybe not all of them – changing their most coveted positions in order to rebut the challenge of a candidate who has flanked their position to the left or the right and, thereby threatened his re-electability. Adamant pro-life candidates have become pro-choice to win more votes. Doves have become hawks, segregationists have become integrationists and Defense of Marriage Act people have become pro-gay rights. One comedienne has noted that some Christian politicians would even throw Jesus under the bus to get re-elected.

Sometimes the opinions of people are characterized by what psychologists refer to as labile preferences. Often people may express different or even contradictory opinions depending on the context of the inquiry. Labile preferences suggest that the germane root values of the subject are ambiguous or “out of focus.” A values-clarification component should be included in any mechanism or procedure designed to elicit compromise between combatant parties.