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The Preference: An often overlooked element of REBT

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Preferences in REBT are usually discussed in terms of being the “rational” alternative to the Demand “irrational” belief.  As such the preference is the goal for the therapist and the client.  Some might even say that adopting a preferential philosophy, having given up on a demand-based one, is the silver bullet of REBT.  Ellis referred to this as the elegant solution.  Yet, the Preference itself rarely receives the attention it deserves. 

So, what is the usual role of the preference.  Let’s look at an example of a demand for approval.  The demand element takes the form of “must”, “need”, or “have to”, for example, “I have to be approved of” (usually by someone or some people of importance to the person with the demand).  It is easy to work out the possible beliefs that derive from the Demand not being met: “and it would be Awful if I am not, I couldn’t stand it, and it would prove how unlovable I am” (all in shorthand here).  But let us focus on how the Demand came to be.  Imagine this was your belief.  You really want this other person to approve of you.  In fact, you want it so badly that they “have to” approve of you.  

Would they “have to” approve of you if you did not want them to?  Let’s work it out.  What if your preference was “I have no preference for that’s person’s approval” or “I really don’t want that person to approve of me”?  For the socially interested among you these options might seem a little unlikely, but stick with it.  How does this sound “I have no preference for that person’s approval AND therefore they HAVE TO approve of me”?  Or, “I really don’t want that person to approve of me AND therefore they HAVE TO approve of me”?  Where is the Demand coming from and why?  It makes little sense in this context.  So, the preference ALWAYS precedes the Demand.  Every Demand contains preference.  

We might even go so far as to say that our Preferences start getting established not long after we are born (perhaps even earlier).  Think about the more obvious preferences you have: preferred colour, preferred nickname, preferred type of clothes, preferred foods, preferred friends, preferred TV programmes, preferred comedy, preferred career, and so on.  If your favourite colour is, for example, green, do you even know why?  Probably not.  Back in 1980, Robert Zajonc published a paper (Zajonc, R. B., Feeling and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences. American Psychologist, 1980, 35, 151-175), where he showed that Preferences can be experienced without recognition memory.  This argument holds that Preferences do not require a cognitive process (such as inference or a reason, nor even a recollection of having experienced it before).  It might not be too great a stretch to state that we feel our preferences.  It is also a good reason not to try too hard to change them!

If we step outside of REBT for a brief moment, we can see that this topic is overlooked in many models of psychological therapy.  It would be a rare and perhaps insensitive Beckian Cognitive Behavioural Therapist that on uncovering the view “Nobody likes me” asks “well why do you even care?”.  The preference is assumed by the distressed position.  If you are depressed and you hold the core belief that nobody likes you, then you are clearly deprived of what you want, being liked.  Unlike many other models, Ellis hit on this, he noticed the important role of Preferences.  

The Preference shapes our choices (non-cognitively) and our distress (when wanted or not wanted so badly the Preference is turned into a Demand).  They are also a powerful tool for the REBT practitioner, as the proposed new rational belief (to counter the Demand) will be intrinsically experienced as true and real by the client and negates the Demand.  I really want you to like this blog, but you don’t have to like it.  The Preference is also evident in our use of language for establishing goals and outcomes, for example: “How would you like things to be in this situation?”.  

We would argue that one of the best tips we can give to you aspiring REBT practitioner is to embrace the language of the preference and to hold this in mind during the course of therapy.  Next time you are helping a client to negotiate a tricky social encounter within another person, try encouraging them to use the language of the preference to express themselves.  Examples might include: “I really like it when we do this”, or “I really don’t like it when you speak to me in that way”.  Your client, and you, might just discover how empowering the Preference can be.

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