Interacting with new people do from time to time, make me somewhat anxious. Some questions in particular are especially anxiety inducing – A question like “what is your favourite X”.

The thing about favourites is that they imply a preference set in that one or more than one item in the set is more preferred than the others, usually in some kind of order. While it is true that for most categories of things I have a somewhat fixed preference set, problems arise from a few issues, which I will further elaborate below:

  • The preference set is subject to extrinsic variables
  • Too many tied orderings/too few tiebreakers
  • The humblebrag

Preference Ordering Function is Subject to External Variables

Let’s say I have a preference over a small set of fruits such that $latex f = { apples, oranges, grapes, mangoes, lychees, durians }$. In this set, I am indifferent to the ordering of the subset $latex f_2 = { apples, oranges, grapes, mangoes, lychees }$. However $latex f_2 $ is strictly preferred to a subset containing durian. I fucking hate that fruit.

We can say that the preference ordering function is based on the utility that each item on the list provides. Let’s use some fictional numbers: For apples, oranges, mangoes, grapes and lychees let’s say right now they give me 1 Util worth of utility respectively. While the durian gives me -1 Util worth of utility. If you order them it’d look like this:

Fruit Utility
Apples 1 Util (tied)
Oranges 1 Util (tied)
Mangoes 1 Util (tied)
Grapes 1 Util (tied)
Lychees 1 Util (tied)
Durian -1 Util

So in the case above, I hate durian, but I’m indifferent to the ordering of the rest. However, say there is a platter of cheese in front of me as well as the fruits. Suddenly the tropical fruits like mangoes, lychees and durians will be lower on the preference as they do not taste well with cheese * Generally. I mean I think stilton-mango pairings are amazing .

Ok, so preferences can change based on the situation. If I am deathly hungry, I may even prefer durians over a null set (i.e. nothing). That preferences can change based on the situation precisely highlights my problem with the concept of favourites.

We can say the favourite item is the top item in the list of items. By extrapolation, it also means that the top item in the list of item provides the most utility as at any given point in time.

You see, by informing others of an ephemeral preference set, you are committing a social faux pas. Imagine you tell someone that your favourite food is mac and cheese. The next time you meet that someone, you discovered that he/she had cooked you a pot of mac and cheese. Only because you had recently eaten a lot of cheese, mac and cheese is no longer on the top of your list (incidentally this is called the law of diminishing returns). Oops.

Of course the example above is unrealistic. But how many times have we heard “but I thought your favourite X is Y?” at gatherings?

Having No Tiebreaker

In the above section, I used being indifferent to the choice of multiple fruits as an example. Which also happens a lot in real life. Most times I am indifferent to most options, only being highly averse to certain things – like the durian above.

If someone were to ask for a favourite, they usually mean one or two things. However, there are times – with food in particular – which I am able to enumerate an infinitely long list of foods that I have equal preferences for. This makes me appear indecisive, or that I am lacking something in the decision making part.

I make it no secret among my friends that I do indeed use a random dice to make decisions on small things like choosing dinner precisely because my preference set is largely undefined. I personally think I am not indecisive. Rather, I am aware of my preference set, and there are many things in the set that are of equal rank. Either way, having to think about this makes me fairly anxious.

The humblebrag

This one is actually quite recent. I was explaining to someone I had just met that indeed I had read certain books, and I do rather find pleasure in them – which in my view qualifies as “favourite” enough. What was said to me was along the lines of “oh are you sure that list is not just to show off you’re smart”.

To be fair, I think the same of people who list Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy as their favourite authors – I mean, have you tried to read Crime and Punishment? It’s a fucking chore – Oh wait, I’m committing the same fallacy as the very thing I rant about!


Having a favourites list that is unchanging opens you up to pre-judgment. Making friends is already hard as it is, I don’t need more doors slammed in my face. I know a lot of these concerns are incredibly petty. You may say I overthink things – and indeed I do! It’s precisely why when someone asks me for a favourite something, I struggle to give an answer.

Tell me what you think about favourites. Do you have any? Are they static and unchanging?

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