Preference failure

by Tim Harding

According to economists, preference failure occurs when someone acts contrary to their own interests or intentions. Prime examples are addictions, such as to smoking, alcohol, other drugs or to gambling which can often result in ill-health, financial ruin and/or death. Addicts are usually aware of the harmful consequences of their actions, but by definition they are unable to break their bad habits. So the problem here is not information failure – it is a form of irrationality, where short-term pleasure overrides long-term welfare(1).

Less obvious forms of preference failure occur when someone may believe that they are doing the right thing, but their actions are counter-productive to their intentions.

For example, a survey by Monash University in 2005 found that 22 per cent of people said they sometimes fed a cat that did not belong to them (2). Some people may feel they are being kind because they know that stray cats suffer from starvation, disease and injuries from fights with other cats. But because they are ‘unowned’, stray cats are deprived of the regular meals, shelter, grooming and veterinary care that owned cats receive. Feeding stray cats provides a short-term ‘feel good factor’ that acts against the long-term welfare of the cats. Being a stray cat is not a sustainable lifestyle, with an average life-expectancy of only 3 years. So feeding them actually perpetuates the misery of these poor animals (and their kittens), which on a rational basis should either be adopted as pets or euthanased.

An adverse side-effect is that stray cats are also more likely to kill birds, possums and other native animals than owned cats, at least some of which are kept indoors overnight. The kindest thing to do for a stray cat would be to ‘adopt’ it (but have it checked for a microchip by a vet first). If this is not possible, contact an animal welfare organisation such as the RSPCA or the Cat Protection Society.

Preference failure is not usually a fallacy of deductive logic, in the sense of drawing an invalid conclusion from stated premises. It is more likely to be an instance of invalid inductive reasoning, where the evidence has insufficient inductive strength to justify the behaviour.


1. Abelson, P. (2008) Public Economics – Principles and Practice. McGraw-Hill, North Ryde.


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