Should you make your preferences clear? Study suggests yes

The next time a new acquaintance suggests meeting at a restaurant for dinner – when it’s safe to do so, of course – and wants to know where you’d like to go, it might be wise to not just say, “Wherever is fine with me.”

Perceived indifference can generate feelings of dehumanization toward the noncommittal person, according to new research co-authored by Kaitlin Woolley ’12, assistant professor of marketing at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

“The tendency when you’re meeting someone new or you’re out to dinner for an interview might be, ‘I’m good with whatever, I’ll go with the flow, I’ll let the group decide,’” Woolley said. “And we actually find that that can have a backfiring effect.”

Jessica M. Lopez ’12, a user experience researcher at Facebook, is lead author of “A Preference For Preference: Lack of Subjective Preference Evokes Dehumanization,” which published Feb. 10 in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The other co-author is Ann L. McGill, the Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing and Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

This line of research, Woolley said, began following a conversation with her colleagues involving Soylent – the soy/lentil drink that purports to contain all the nutrients a person needs. They wondered, if a person ingested the same thing for every meal for strictly nutritional purposes, what it would say about their having preferences in general.

“Their disinterest in eating varied meals felt as if they had no food preferences, and we felt such people may be more robotic and less human,” Woolley said.

The trio then designed six studies to examine the effect of lacking a preference – and even lacking a certain type of preference – on what’s known as “mechanistic dehumanization,” characterized by the denial of attributes such as compassion and individuality, which separate humans from machines. This is opposed to “animalistic dehumanization,” which involves perceiving someone as less civil, moral or capable of higher-order cognition but still able to express emotion.

For example, in one study – in which 301 Cornell students took part – a man was described as ordering ice cream. He either had a preference for chocolate (generic preference), maple-bacon (unique preference) or had no preference and chose the chocolate flavor at random. The man choosing at random was seen as the most mechanistic and robotic, even when compared to the situation in which he chose the same flavor, but was seen as expressing a preference for chocolate. The least robotic person was the person with the more unique preference.

Additional studies demonstrated how lacking a subjective preference can harm satisfaction with a worker, and harm perceptions of the work someone produces, making it seem less creative. For example, people were less interested in rehiring an interior designer who lacked (vs. held) a preference for favorite food and music, even when there was no objective difference in work quality.

The ice cream study was particularly revealing, Woolley said, because it showed a “middle ground,” where even a small amount of preference helps humanize a person.

“Maybe the maple-bacon ice cream is a bit too extreme for some,” she said, “but even just having a preference for the chocolate ice cream still helps compared to choosing at random or going with whatever the group wants.”

The researchers suggest that job applicants could personalize resumes in an attempt to be seen as more human in the eyes of prospective employees. Similarly, organizations can give themselves a boost by personalizing employee biographical sketches on their websites, and even personalizing their company profiles.

“Embedding some of that language is very simple and easy to do,” Woolley said. “Business leaders might not realize how their success or actions could come across as unfeeling, and expressing a preference can help humanize them.”

This research was supported by funding from Cornell and from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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Rebecca Valli