in: Advice, Character, Featured

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Wants Vs. Likes


A thinking man sitting on a desk.

“In the world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” –Oscar Wilde

Have you ever wanted something really, really bad, but when you finally got it, you were left feeling kind of disappointed?

Maybe you thought changing jobs would make you happy, but it didn’t.

Or you thought you’d like living in another state, but ended up regretting the move.

Perhaps you sunk a bunch of money into a new hobby you were sure you’d love, only to abandon it after just a few outings.

Why do we experience these mismatches between what we think something will be like and the reality of it?

This misalignment is often the result of confusing our wants and our likes — a common mix-up that gets in the way of our making good decisions and finding real satisfaction.

The Difference Between Wanting and Liking

While we often use “like” and “want” interchangeably, in the realm of cognitive psychology, they’re two different things.

Wanting is simply the prediction that we’ll like something when we get it or experience it.

Liking is the good feeling — the joy and fulfillment — we get from doing or having something.

Wanting is based on guesses.

Liking is based on firsthand experience.

“I want to spend more time in the outdoors.” vs. “I like spending in the outdoors.”

If we want something, we figure we must like it — otherwise we wouldn’t have wanted it in the first place.

Yet our likes and wants are not always so neatly aligned: we often want things that we really don’t like. This is a phenomenon known as miswanting.

What Causes Miswanting?

Why do we miswant? Shouldn’t we know ourselves well enough to accurately predict when we’ll like the things we desire?

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

Using Faulty Predictions

Leonardo Dicaprio holding Daisy.

The Great Gatsby is basically a tragedy dedicated to this type of miswanting. Gatsby wanted to be with Daisy so very badly that he spent his entire life molding himself into the kind of man that she would want. When he finally gets her, the experience is completely underwhelming.

Sometimes 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.

For example, when Kate and I were first married, we decided to take a trip to Italy. We’re both big history and classics buffs, and we thought we’d really enjoy exploring Rome. In our heads we imagined ourselves freely wandering through a beautiful highlight reel of the ancient sites and paintings we’d seen online. The reality of the trip, however, involved a lot of being packed like sardines, waiting in lines, and shuffling through museums where we could barely get a look at the exhibits over the heads of our fellow tourists; it felt like being in a theme park, but with ancient relics instead of rides. I realized I had wanted to see the major sites, but I really, really didn’t like vacationing in places with big crowds.

We often mix up our wants and likes with bigger decisions as well. Some folks have an idea in the heads of what would constitute their dream job. They think it’d make them happier and more fulfilled than their current work. With some pluck and drive, they manage to quit their hum-drum corporate gig and start the job that lines up with their perceived passion.

At first, things are great. The natural excitement that comes with change and newness makes them feel like they made the right choice.

But after a few weeks, they start noticing annoyances they didn’t imagine when they were in the throes of a real good wanting. They didn’t foresee the late nights, having to worry about bookkeeping, or the annoying, high-maintenance clients they’d have to work with. From the outside, they saw only the fun and interesting highlights of the job, while being blind to the behind-the-scenes dead work that actually makes up the bulk of what they’ll be doing day-to-day.

Soon, these folks start second guessing their decision because they’re not as happy as they thought they’d be. It turns out they don’t much like what they very much wanted.

Having the Wrong Theory About Ourselves

But let’s say you have a complete understanding about the object or experience you want. So there will be no mismatch between what you imagine you’ll get and what you’ll actually experience. Can that always stave off miswanting?

Unfortunately, no.

Even if we know exactly what we’re getting, sometimes we have incorrect theories about how much we’ll like it.

This fact was demonstrated in a simple study that centered on snacks. Researchers asked subjects to plan a menu of snacks they’d receive on three consecutive Mondays. These folks knew exactly what kind of snack they’d be receiving; yet when they finally got it, they were still disappointed.

The problem was that the subjects tended to think that selecting a variety of snacks would make them happiest; their theory about themselves ran something like this: “I’m not a boring routine guy! Variety is the spice of life!” So instead of requesting the one snack they liked best for all three Mondays, they decided to select something different for each week. For example, even if a participant knew he loved pretzels, he only asked to receive them on the first Monday, while requesting a Snickers bar for the second Monday, and potato chips for the third. Yet when the candy bar and chips were set before him, he felt disappointed; he really wished he was getting pretzels again. Participants consistently miswanted, because they made a decision based on an erroneous theory about themselves.

There are things we’d like to believe about ourselves, and then there’s how we actually are.

In college, I really wanted to be the kind of guy who liked indie movies and only ate at ethnic and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. So that’s what I did. A few of the flicks I saw were indeed good; most I didn’t enjoy. And while I did find some great little restaurants, I also came to the point where I could admit that I really enjoyed going to Chilis too. I wasn’t as cool of a dude as I had wanted to think; but in accepting that, I was able to do more things that I actually liked.

It can be hard to deviate from cherished narratives and recognize that we don’t always like the things we wished we liked. And the consequences can be far more significant than needlessly avoiding eating Chicken Crispers.

Experiencing Emotional Contamination

A couple sitting on sunbath chairs.

Even if we know exactly what we’ll be getting with something, and exactly what we like, we’re still susceptible to miswanting.

This is because our feelings from liking one thing can “contaminate” our wanting of other things.

For example, let’s say you go on vacation to some exotic locale, and you feel incredibly relaxed and happy. You think to yourself, “I love this place! I need to move here permanently!” It seems like it’s the location itself that’s making you happy, but it may simply be the fact that you’re on vacation and away from work. Most everyone feels happier on vacation, no matter where they are. Yet 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.

Emotional contamination often happens with relationships as well. You might be dating someone, and at first think she’s really great; yet the happiness you feel is really springing from your excitement about being in a relationship, period. It’s broken a long drought, and you mistake the buzz of having a pretty gal like you, for you liking her back. This happens with wedding engagements that fall apart too; the couple feels really good about the whole thing at first, but their positive feelings are really arising from the idea of being engaged in general, rather than about their fiancé in particular.

As Dr. Gilbert notes, “feelings do not say where they came from, and thus it is all too easy for us to attribute them to the wrong source.”

Emotional contamination can happen with negative feelings, too. For example, you might be feeling down because you got passed over for a promotion. Your bud calls you and asks if you want to go to a basketball game that night. It’s the kind of thing you typically love doing, but the negative emotions you’re experiencing at the moment color your choice; you feel like you won’t enjoy the game because you’re feeling down about your bad day at work. The reality is that going to a basketball game to get your mind off things is probably exactly what you need to feel better.

How to Avoid Miswanting

So how do we make sure we go after those things that we really like, and don’t just think we like?

While it’s not possible to completely eliminate miswanting from our lives, we can take measures to reduce how often and to what extent it happens, particularly for wants that can have big-time ramifications in our lives like a job change or a move.

1. Don’t be afraid to embrace what you really like, even when it runs counter to cultural/familial expectations. In college I realized that I would probably like teaching best as a career. But such a path didn’t seem to have the kind of prestige and stability I felt was expected of me, and so I convinced myself that I instead wanted to be a lawyer and that I’d like legal work. Halfway through law school I realized I had miswanted, and royally shoulded on myself.

The story of the man-who-buries-his-passion-to-pursue-a-traditional-career has been a common morality tale for a century now. And not falling into that trap is still something to watch for. Yet today, it’s equally “countercultural” to accept the fact that you’d actually like a stable, traditional 9-5 job instead of being a war correspondent or start-up founder. Don’t just give yourself permission to choose paths that are imbued with a cool and “rebellious” narrative, but ones you actually like—even if some folks think they’re boring and unhip.

2. Give it a trial run. Let’s say you want a new job. You hate your current work and find it unfulfilling. You think you’d like another job, but you’re not entirely sure. Instead of quitting your current gig and finding out the new one isn’t what you thought it would be, give it a trial run.

Now this could be tricky or impossible if the job you want is in a completely different field. But take a look at the current organization you’re working within. There could be an opportunity there for you to do what you want to do. If you’re an attorney at a firm that primarily does litigation, but you have a desire to do more consulting/contractual work, ask your higher-ups if you can take on a case that would allow you to explore that area of the law. Tell them you just want to test it out to see if it’s a good fit for you.

Actually getting your hands dirty with the kind of work you think you want to do gives you a chance to 1) get an idea of what the work is actually like, and 2) get an idea if you’re the kind of person who actually enjoys said work. If you find out you don’t like it, no harm, no foul. Just go back to the job you were doing before.

Another way to give a different line of work a trial run is to moonlight with it by creating a side hustle.

If you’re still in school, you’re at a great advantage. Get firsthand experience in the careers you’re thinking about pursuing with internships. When young people ask me if they should go to law school, I always recommend that they work at a law firm before making that decision. There’s no better way to hone your likes than with firsthand experience.

3. Keep a journal. A journal can help you get a better idea of what you really like as opposed to what you think you like. Our memories get hazier, and rosier, over time. Whenever you get a hankering to visit New York City again, check your journal entries from the last time you were there to see how you felt about the visit. It may be the case that you didn’t have as great a time as you remember. 

4. Consult friends and family. Friends and family can be a great support in helping you avoid miswanting. For starters, you can use them as a resource to get a correct idea of the thing you want.

For example, maybe you want to quit your job and start your own business. Before you do that, take a family member or a friend who owns their own business out to lunch and ask them to tell you everything they hate about owning a business. This little exercise can help ensure that you have a complete picture of the thing you want. You may find out that the negatives outweigh the positives and that owning a business isn’t something you’d personally like.

Another way friends and family can help you avoid miswanting is by reminding you of what you really like. As outsiders to your internal life, they have a different, and sometimes more objective, view on your personality and proclivities.

Let’s say you’ve just finished reading a Wendell Berry novel, and you suddenly have a yearning to move to the country. You’re convinced that you’re the kind of guy that would not just like, but love agrarian living. You tell your wife this. She reminds you about how much you complained when you were at her grandparents’ house out in the country for only a week. Maybe you’re not the kind of guy who’s cut out for yeoman farming after all.

5. Realize you may end up liking what you didn’t think you wanted. Not only do we sometimes dislike what we thought we wanted, but we end up liking what we didn’t even realize we wanted. You think sushi is gross until you taste it; you swear off marriage for decades until falling head over heels for a special lady; you begrudgingly move back to your hometown, only to discover real happiness there. Keep yourself open and don’t be afraid to try new things; you never know when you’ll end up liking something you didn’t think you wanted!

Let us end this discussion with the insights of our friend Jack London, who explained the essence and significance of authentic liking in regards to how he and his wife wanted to sail around the world, while their friends thought the idea was nuts:

“Our friends cannot understand why we make this voyage. They shudder, and moan, and raise their hands. No amount of explanation can make them comprehend that we are moving along the line of least resistance; that it is easier for us to go down to the sea in a small ship than to remain on dry land, just as it is easier for them to remain on dry land than to go down to the sea in the small ship.

This state of mind comes of an undue prominence of the ego. They cannot get away from themselves. They cannot come out of themselves long enough to see that their line of least resistance is not necessarily everybody else’s line of least resistance. They make of their own bundle of desires, likes, and dislikes a yardstick wherewith to measure the desires, likes, and dislikes of all creatures. This is unfair. I tell them so. But they cannot get away from their own miserable egos long enough to hear me. They think I am crazy. In return, I am sympathetic. It is a state of mind familiar to me. We are all prone to think there is something wrong with the mental processes of the man who disagrees with us.

The ultimate word is I Like. It lies beneath philosophy, and is twined about the heart of life. When philosophy has maundered ponderously for a month, telling the individual what he must do, the individual says, in an instant, “I Like,” and does something else…

That is why I am building the [ship]. I am so made. I like, that is all.”

Have you ever wanted something, only to get it and realize you didn’t like it? What did you learn from the experience? 

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