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Preference Reversals in Equivalent Choices between Individuals and Policies that Affect Individuals
Across three preregistered experiments (N = 1,596), we examine whether people make systematically different choices when choosing between individuals and policies. In an admissions context, we randomly assign participants to admit one of two individuals or select one of two policies. When choosing between individuals, people are significantly more likely to choose an applicant with higher achievement over a less privileged applicant, but people exhibit the opposite preference when deciding between policies with equivalent consequences. We document this preference reversal among real admissions officers and lay people, using within-subject and between-subject designs. We theorize that thinking about policies activates more abstract concepts than thinking about individual decisions, and we provide causal evidence that activating these concepts attenuates our effect. This research documents a new preference reversal in an important, real-world choice context, and has practical and theoretical implications for understanding why our choices so frequently violate our espoused policies.