Do you like it, or do you want it?

It is likely that you have, at some time in your life, really wanted something… but upon finally getting it, felt rather disappointed. Pehaps you thought a career change was the solution to all your problems, but realised it wasn’t, once you had done it. Or perhaps you thought you’d like living in another country, but ended up regretting the move.

Of course, the key example here is buying a certain watch which you were certain you’d love, only to discover otherwise after a few days on the wrist.

Why does this happen? Why do we find a divergence between what we think something will be like, and the ultimate reality when we finally experience it?

This divergence is perhaps a result of confusing something we like, and something we want — a common hurdle that impacts decision-making and finding true satisfaction.

Defining the terms

We shall start with the dictionary definitions:

  • Want: “have a desire to possess or do (something); wish for.”
  • Like: “find agreeable, enjoyable, or satisfactory.”

Of course, we’re trying to go much deeper than that, so I’d like to reference a publication by Sung-il Kim from Frontiers in Psychology:

This means that a state of liking for a specific object or activity cannot be understood as a motivational state and that liking is not a prerequisite for generating motivation. From this perspective, liking refers to an emotional state whereas wanting has more to do with motivation and decision utility (Berridge and Aldridge, 2008). 

Sung-il Kim

A lot of work unpacking the different aspects of what makes an experience pleasurable has come from the lab of Kent Berridge. For example, whilst liking and wanting have previously both been associated with a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), Berridge (2003) found that they are actually processed by distinct, anatomically separate, NAcc regions which can operate independently of one another.

In addition, liking and wanting may involve different neurotransmitters, as artificially suppressing dopamine release can reduce wanting behaviour towards a stimulus without reducing the degree of liking for it (Berridge and Robinson, 2003). Berridge concluded that dopamine was only important for increasing the ‘incentive salience’ (the degree of wanting) of a stimulus, and in turn therefore producing a motivational state to repeat it, rather than for regulating the liking of the stimulus itself.

Now, this distinction between liking and wanting may seem counter-intuitive, but it is actually one that we are all familiar with and we can find examples in everyday life. Take exercise, for instance; many people have strong desire to exercise (exercise has a high ‘incentive salience’) and are therefore motivated to exercise regularly. For many of these people, the actual process of exercise is not in itself pleasurable… Indeed, it may sometimes be actively unpleasant! Another perhaps morbid example is drug abuse – where the abuser might come to hate the drug itself (i.e. dislike), but the incentive salience (or ‘level of wanting) is such that they crave it nonetheless.

Concluding with watches

For starters I think the drug abuse analogy is one which I have heard many times from watch collectors… it is seemingly a dark hole, a hobby with no end in sight; the moment one’s last purchase is sized and on the wrist, the hunt for the next purchase ensues. How do we decide we want a particular watch? I have written about the decision-making process, the process of buying what you really like and so on… but there is a phenomenon called ‘miswanting‘ which I have not talked about.

In a paper entitled “Miswanting: Some Problems in the Forecasting of Future Affective States,” psychologists Daniel Gilbert and his co-author Timothy Wilson, highlight several ways in which our likes and wants can become muddled and unhooked: 

  • Faulty predictions – basically the thing we imagine when we start strongly desiring something doesn’t match up with the thing we actually experience. Our predictions aren’t accurate. So a simple example is where you pick out a particular watch, and you’re certain you’ll like it because it’s the right case size, and the right colour dial etc… but when you get it, it just feels terrible; maybe the weight is off, or the lugs protrude in an uncomfortable way and so on.
  • Having the wrong theory about ourselves – in this case, even when we know exactly what we’re getting, sometimes we have incorrect theories about how much we’ll like it. An example here is to want a diverse collection, since I hear this a lot. Many folks know themselves well, and they have several watches which are very similar, and they don’t care about diversity. Other, perhaps newer collectors, romanticise about diversity in their collection only to discover that isn’t for them.
  • Experiencing emotional contamination – now even if we know exactly what we’ll be getting with something, and exactly what we like, we’re still susceptible to miswanting… because our feelings from liking one thing can “contaminate” our wanting of other things. Let’s say you go on holiday to Mauritius, and you feel super relaxed and happy. You think to yourself, “I love this place! I need to move here permanently!” It seems like the location is making you happy, but it may simply be the fact that you’re on holiday and away from work. Here, the positive feelings resulting from the break “contaminate” your feelings about the place in which you’re taking it, giving you the sense you’d be happier if you lived there year-round. You could apply this to watches too – when it comes to wanting the ‘new watch alert’ feeling, or perhaps to the feeling of getting a call from the authorised dealer for a desirable steel sports watch; how does this impact your view of the watch itself?

Feelings do not say where they came from, and thus it is all too easy for us to attribute them to the wrong source

Dr. Daniel Gilbert

All that being said, this isn’t some sort of self-help topic, but rather, it is intended to give you some food for thought on the matter. A few things I would suggest are:

  • Don’t be afraid to embrace what you really like, even when it contradicts popular opinion. You want to wear a bronze watch? Have at it, who cares what anyone on Instagram thinks? We’re all strangers anyway, and those of us who are friends, will support one another’s decisions even if they wouldn’t necessarily make those decisions for themselves – we’re all individuals, start acting like it!
  • Try new watches. The feeling of ‘wanting’ is essentially a guess about what we might like – you can never know for sure, until you try it for yourself. Sure, you may take a loss, but you will learn from it.
  • Write thoughts down. You will be surprised how often we change our opinions as the wave of external influences crash upon us – this is why you will notice I personally take hard line stances on new releases – so that I am putting my neck out and standing by my original un-influenced opinion. Can it change? Sure – but I will need a damn good explanation for it, and this makes me less susceptible to soft influence. Just an example – but if you write down your thoughts to refer back to, you can always cross reference your initial feelings with future ones.
  • Ask friends for help. Ultimately you can feel free to ask me, but I may not know you well enough to offer any useful advice… but your friends will have more useful data about your tastes and your preferences- see what they think about your choices, and see if you can defend the choices to people who can call bullsh*t if you’re not being honest with yourself.
  • Realise you may end up liking what you didn’t think you wanted. This has happened to me so often… this is already a bit long so I won’t bore you with the stories but above all, this is one of the best realisations you can have. You often hear absolute comments like “I can never wear X” or “cases smaller than Y size never suit me” – I will bet you any one of those statments will have an exception; ALWAYS.

Hope this helps someone out there!


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Ah, the dreaded buyer’s remorse. Being in watches AND fountain pens, I can totally relate to thinking you like something, only to realise that it’s not what you thought it would be once you buy it.

    Such a useful article here, and I’m glad to be back reading this. Thanks for sharing!


    1. kingflum says:

      Cheers Stuart, appreciate the reply man. It’s strange how we all experience the post-purchase dissonance and digging into the reasons why is always fascinating! Have a great weekend man. F


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