Published: July 26, 2023 By

The next time a friend asks where you want to grab lunch or which movie you’d rather see, resist the urge to say, “I have no preference—you choose.” 

According to a recent study co-authored by Alix Barasch, an associate professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business, if you claim indifference, your friend believes you actually do have a preference, you’re just not disclosing it. Further, your perceived caginess makes the decision harder for your friend—who may end up liking you less as a result.

Alix Barasch.

Alix Barasch (Credit: Cody Johnston/CU Boulder)

That’s a lot to unpack, but think about a time when you were forced to be the decision-maker in this scenario. Did you take your friend’s “no preference” statement at face value?

Generally, “we don’t believe them,” Barasch said. “People have very well-established preference structures. It’s rare that people don’t have opinions on things and as a result, we assume that when someone says ‘no preference,’ they do have a preference.”

The motivations behind not stating a preference are generally positive, the researchers found, but this form of decision-delegating can have a negative effect on the relationship. 

“We want to be nice or we really don’t care that much, and we think it will make the other person’s life easier,” Barash said. “But even though we’ve all been on both sides, when we think about somebody who has said this to us, we immediately know that’s annoying.”

The paper, “You Must Have a Preference: The Impact of No Preference Communication on Joint Decision Making,” was published in June 2022 in the Journal of Marketing Research and involved six studies using real-life and hypothetical decisions.

The researchers, who also included Nicole You Jeung Kim of The Faculty of Business at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University; Yonat Zwebner of the Arison School of Business at Reichman University in Israel; and Rom Y. Schrift of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, highlighted three consequences of no-preference communication.

“First, we find very consistently that it makes the decision harder for the person who has to choose,” Barasch said. “This is counterintuitive because if someone says they don’t have a preference and you really believe them, then it should become an individual decision-making process—just choose what you prefer. But if you don’t believe the person, then you’re trying to guess what they want and the choice becomes more difficult.”

Barasch said the second consequence of showing indifference when asked to state a preference has to do with “social utility.” 

“It really just means that you’re liked less. People don’t like people who aren’t honest and don’t share what they really feel. If it’s your partner, do you really love them less? No.This is a tiny difference on the margin, but it matters because being annoyed with people has consequences over time,” she said.

Finally, the third consequence is a “lose-lose scenario,” Barasch said, where the decision-maker concludes that the other person’s preference is likely dissimilar to their own and chooses an option that they themselves like less.

But what if you truly don’t have a preference?

“What I’d recommend is to express something even if it’s not making the final decision. I think there’s kind of a middle ground where you can narrow it down to a category or rule out one of three options,” Barasch said. “The goal here is expressing something—give some signal value that you’re not totally flaky or unable to take any action. You are willing to state an opinion.”

Barasch acknowledged that it can be difficult when there is a power imbalance in the relationship—for example, when your boss asks where you’d like to go to lunch—but she advises offering up something. In her own life, Barasch said she’s increasingly using the “narrowing-down tactic.”

Beyond interpersonal relationships, the study’s implications in the corporate realm could include managers exploring new ways of prompting people to speak up or to do so anonymously. Streaming services could incorporate a feature that facilitates joint decision-making “without having to force this awkward exchange,” Barasch said. She added that for companies, the challenge is “how to get people to express real preferences and real opinions.”

Still hung up on the finding that you’ll be liked less for refusing to state a preference? The researchers tested whether the feelings of dislike come from the decision difficulty or the disbelief. 

“It comes from the disbelief,” Barasch said. “It comes from the suspicion that you’re not revealing your true preferences, not from the difficulty of making the decision. What’s good about that is if you express no preference and it comes across genuinely, then yes, the person’s decision is still more difficult but it doesn’t make them like you less.”