Adaptive preference is a concept that illuminates what happens both in the lab and in life. An adaptive preference results when we bend aspiration towards expectation in light of experience. We come to want what we think is within our grasp. More than a simple "reality check," adaptive preference formation involves disciplining one’s motivational structure with the benefit of hindsight. Much of what passes for "wisdom" in life is about the formation of adaptive preferences.
When the social psychologist Leon Festinger suggested the idea in the 1950s, it provided a neat account of how people maintain a sense of autonomy while under attack by events beyond their control. He might have been talking about how the US and the USSR held their nerve in Cold War vicissitudes, but in fact he was talking about how a millennial religious cult continued to flourish even after its key doomsday prediction had failed to materialize.
In the 1980s, the social and political philosopher Jon Elster brilliantly generalized the idea of adaptive preference in terms of the complementary phenomena of "sour grapes" and "sweet lemons": We tend to downgrade the value of previously desired outcomes as their realization becomes less likely and upgrade the value of previously undesired outcomes as their realization becomes more likely.
The interesting question is whether adaptive preference formation is rational. Festinger’s original case study seemed to imply an answer of no. After a few hours of doubt and despair, the cult regrouped by interpreting the deity’s failure to end the world as a sign that the cult had done sufficient good to reverse their fate. This emboldened them to proselytise still more vigorously.
One might think that had the cult responded rationally to the failed prophecy, they would have simply abandoned any belief that they were in a special relationship with a higher deity. Instead the cult did something rather subtle. They did not make the obvious "irrational" move of denying that the prophecy had failed or postponing doomsday to a later date. Rather, they altered their relationship to the deity, who previously appeared to claim that there was nothing humans could do to reverse their fate. The terms of this renegotiated relationship then gave the cult members a sense of control over their lives which served to renew their missionary zeal.
This is an instance of what Elster called "sweet lemons," and it is not as obviously irrational as its counterpart, "sour grapes." In fact, a "sweet lemon detector," so to speak, may be a key element of the motivational structure of people who are capable of deep learning from negative experience. Such people come to acquire a clearer sense of what they have truly valued all along so that they are reinvigorated by adversity.
The phenomenon of sweet lemons is disorienting to the observer because it highlights just how much we presume that others share our overarching values. We do not simply respect the autonomy of others. We also expect, somewhat paradoxically, that by virtue of their autonomy they will become more like us. Thus, the post-prophecy behavior of Festinger’s cult is confusing because they carried on in a version of what they had previously done. In so doing, they learned from experience. But what they learned was to become more like themselves.
Adaptive preferences are arguably scalable, perhaps even to the level of entire cultures and species. A striking feature of human history is that widespread disruption and destruction do not necessarily result in people avoiding the precipitating behaviors in the future. For example, within a half-century of mass-produced automobiles, the original objections to their introduction had been realized: The cars themselves were a major source of air and noise pollution. The roads required for cars ravaged the environment and alienated their drivers from nature.
Yet none of that seemed to matter—or at least not enough to lead people to abandon automobiles. Rather, car production worldwide has continued apace while becoming a bit more environment-friendly to avoid the worst envisaged outcomes. For better or worse, we still appear to buy the value package that Henry Ford and others were selling in the early 20th century: We value the car’s freedom and speed not only over the connectedness to nature offered by the horse as presented in Ford’s day but also the relatively low ecological impact offered by mechanized public transport today.
Had Ford not introduced the mass-produced car in the early 20th century, humanity might not have discovered just how much it valued personal mobility. At least, that’s how it looks from the "sweet lemons" version of adaptive preference. Whether a general policy of sweet lemons lets us survive in the future is an open question. But if we do become extinct, it is likely to have been a byproduct of our trying to be better versions of what experience had taught us to believe we are.