Do you LIKE it, or do you WANT it?

“And do what you like. Yeah, and doowutchyalike. Everybody doowutchyalike” Digital Underground

In their 90’s hedonic anthem, Digital Underground invited party revellers to ‘doowutchyalike’. Yeah. Doing just what we like is probably the purest form of satisfaction. So, if our goal is to maximise the collective satisfaction of a population, we ought to distribute the limited resources so that as many as people as possible get as much of the things they like as possible.

The problem is that it is difficult to discover what people like without asking them individually. What people want, in contrast, is immediately revealed in their purchases. So, one assumption in economics is that people want the things that they like. For example, if I like adventure holidays, leaving work on time, and sticky toffee pudding, I could reasonably be expected to express my desires in a decision to pay for those things (or incur opportunity costs to avoid the things I dislike, like overtime). If one simply assumes, therefore, that consumers want the things they like, observing their willingness to pay allows an indirect measure of how much they like them. Right? Wrong.

Advances in neuropsychology have exposed a crucial shortcoming in this economic assumption: in the brain, liking and wanting are not the same things. Whereas liking is considered by scientists to be processed in the ‘pleasure and pain’ systems of the brain, wanting resides firmly in the motivation system. This means it is perfectly feasible for us to like things without wanting them, and vice versa. In rats, at least, scientists at the University of Michigan, have even been able to switch off one circuit completely without affecting the other, and there is some evidence to suggest the same might be the same for humans.

…are we to believe that people genuinely ‘like’ leaving behind $30bn in US casinos each year ?

Researchers posit that our ‘wanting’ emerged earlier in our evolutionary history and takes place in the more ‘primitive’ part of the brain. Wanting responds to cues or triggers in the environment, like the sudden appearance of the reward in front of us. We then decide – rationally, although perhaps non-consciously – that having the reward is better than not having it, and so pursue it. We can therefore want something without ever having previously given it any thought. We might want it just because it is there, because we have been reminded of it, or because someone else has it.

Liking probably evolved later in human beings, as it involves a much more complex, conscious process. We ‘like’ a good or service when we derive pleasure from consuming it, remember the pleasure derived from past consumption, or anticipate the pleasure we will derive from it in the future. Clearly, there will be instances where the brain directs its motivation system to serve the pleasure and pain system – we will want the things that we like. However, to treat the two as synonymous with one another is to deny the existence of willpower, addiction or cravings.

Sometimes we might want things without first knowing whether we will like them or not. We value curiosity because this data-gathering exercise allows us to discover new things that we might like, through trial-and-error. Once we have sampled a good or service a few times, we learn how much we like it and consequently adjust our wanting. Yet, this learning clearly doesn’t work, at least not adequately. Or are we to believe, for instance, that people genuinely like leaving behind $30bn each year in US casinos?

The intuitively appealing economic assumption that liking is the same as wanting is already a century old. Yet like so many of the assumptions of classical economics, its widespread use has resulted in economists seeing it not as just an assumption (to be revised when a more realistic assumption comes along), but as an immutable law. The consequence is that public and private capital is directed towards the things we want rather than those we like. We also complain to policymakers when the increase in the consumption of the things we want – growth – does not yield a corresponding increase in satisfaction.

If learning is insufficient to close the gap between liking and wanting, then a collective effort could be made to direct people towards the things they, if asked, would say they liked. Yet, for many, such policymaking would smack of government overreach – paternalism of the most intrusive kind. Hence, it is for us as individuals to narrow the liking-wanting gap, and to equip ourselves with the tools, routines, or technologies needed to better direct our consumption towards the things we genuinely like. Only then can we provide policymakers with the correct signals to respond to, and they can create more opportunities to ‘doowutchyalike’.

Herman Brodie, Prospecta Ltd. 2018

Further reading:

Berridge, Kent C. (2009) ‘Wanting and Liking: Observations from the Neuroscience and Psychology Laboratory’. Inquiry 52, no. 4 (3 August 2009): 378–98.

Camerer, Colin. (2006)‘Wanting, Liking, and Learning: Neuroscience and Paternalism’. University of Chicago Law Review 73, no. 1 (1 January 2006).

Kahneman, Daniel, Peter P. Wakker, and Rakesh Sarin (1997) ‘Back to Bentham? Explorations of Experienced Utility’. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 112, no. 2: 375–406.

Image: Frits Ahlefeldt –


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