The Neurological Difference Between Liking And Wanting

15 Apr


(Do women like sex less than men because they pursue sex less than men do?)

There isn’t so much a link to religion in this Less Wrong post about the part of the brain responsible for “liking” something and how it’s separate from the part of your brain that controls motivation, but I wanted to share it because I got a bit of an epiphany from reading it:

[N]euroscientists are starting to recognize a difference between “reward” and “pleasure”, or call it “wanting” and “liking”. The two are usually closely correlated. You want something, you get it, then you feel happy. The simple principle behind our entire consumer culture. But do neuroscience and our own experience really support that?


A University of Michigan study analyzed the brains of rats eating a favorite food. They found separate circuits for “wanting” and “liking”, and were able to knock out either circuit without affecting the other (it was actually kind of cute – they measured the number of times the rats licked their lips as a proxy for “liking”, though of course they had a highly technical rationale behind it). When they knocked out the “liking” system, the rats would eat exactly as much of the food without making any of the satisifed lip-licking expression, and areas of the brain thought to be correlated with pleasure wouldn’t show up in the MRI. Knock out “wanting”, and the rats seem to enjoy the food as much when they get it but not be especially motivated to seek it out.


Thus the deep and heavy ramifications. A more down-to-earth example came to mind when I was reading something by Steven Landsburg recently (not recommended). I don’t have the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of:

According to a recent poll, two out of three New Yorkers say that, given the choice, they would rather live somewhere else. But all of them have the choice, and none of them live anywhere else. A proper summary of the results of this poll would be: two out of three New Yorkers lie on polls.

This summarizes a common strain of thought in economics, the idea of “revealed preferences”. People tend to say they like a lot of things, like family or the environment or a friendly workplace. Many of the same people who say these things then go and ignore their families, pollute, and take high-paying but stressful jobs. The traditional economic explanation is that the people’s actions reveal their true preferences, and that all the talk about caring about family and the environment is just stuff people say to look good and gain status. If a person works hard to get lots of money, spends it on an iPhone, and doesn’t have time for their family, the economist will say that this proves that they value iPhones more than their family, no matter what they may say to the contrary.

The gist: You might really like something but lack the motivation to do/get it. Or you might have a lot of motivation to get something when you don’t necessarily like it all that much. It’s not your fault; they are two separate subroutines running in your brain that aren’t linked in a 1:1 manner. Conventional wisdom says that the level of motivation you have to get something reflects how badly you want it. If you have a lot of motivation to get something that must mean you really like it! Or if you really liked it (or someone) then you’d have a lot of motivation to get it!

But no, sorry, the human brain isn’t that simple.

1 Comment

Posted by on April 15, 2013 in cognitive science


One response to “The Neurological Difference Between Liking And Wanting

  1. Leon

    November 14, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Really? It seems to me that conventional wisdom says liking and wanting are different things, but a fairly abstract/technical theory (“revealed preference”) denies it.

NeuroLogica Blog

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Slate Star Codex



Matthew Ferguson Blogs

The Wandering Scientist

What a lovely world it is

NT Blog

My ὑπομνήματα about religion


Understand your mind with the science of psychology -


Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science

Maximum Entropy

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Skepticism, Properly Applied

Criticism is not uncivil


My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Research Digest

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

Disrupting Dinner Parties

Feminism is for everyone!

My ὑπομνήματα about religion

The New Oxonian

Religion and Culture for the Intellectually Impatient

The Musings of Thomas Verenna

A Biblioblog about imitation, the Biblical Narratives, and the figure of Jesus

The Syncretic Soubrette

Snarky musings from an everyday woman

%d bloggers like this: