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In their seminal paper De Gustibus non est Disputandum, Stigler and Becker (1977) surveyed four classes of phenomena widely believed to be inconsistent with the stability of tastes: addiction, habitual behavior, advertising, and fashions, and in each case offered an alternative explanation.

All these explanations are based on the assumption that individual tastes are stable over time. They compare tastes to the Rocky Mountains: "both are there, will be there next year, too, and are the same to all men.”

Question: I am wondering if the assumption that individual's tastes do not change over time has been rigorously challenged. And how?


Note: I added rigorously because their argument is subtle and very persuasive. For example, the role of experience and addiction can be explained with stable preferences. As a consumer gains experience with a good, it becomes easier to use. Thus the cost of using it goes down as use goes up, resulting in higher marginal profit. As the marginal utility diminishes with usage, equilibrium is reached when the diminishing marginal utility gains match the reduction in cost obtained by increases usage.


Update: I found a nice related survey on Endogenous Preferences by Samuel Bowles.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is the assumption that what is time-invariant is the aggregate of individuals' tastes, or each individual's tastes? I assume the former. $\endgroup$ – EnergyNumbers Dec 7 '16 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ @EnergyNumbers as far as I understand they argue that each individual's tastes is stable over time. $\endgroup$ – emeryville Dec 7 '16 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ @EnergyNumbers it seems tat you don't appreciate fancy titles ;-)! $\endgroup$ – emeryville Dec 7 '16 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ I liked the fancy title very much. But the site convention is for English-language titles. It seems peculiar to me that anyone would assume that an individual's tastes are stable over time. I mean, maybe a 110-year old and a 1-year old both like a diet of fruit mushed together with tuna, but not so much in the years in between. $\endgroup$ – EnergyNumbers Dec 7 '16 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ I was also puzzled by this age effect. But their explanation accounts for the fact that consumption may differ according to age with no change in the individual's taste. However relative prices change (see p. 6 and 7 here $\endgroup$ – emeryville Dec 7 '16 at 9:12
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Stigler and Becker's argument is methodological, not philosophical. They do not try to convince us that preferences are indeed identical across individuals and invariant across time as a matter of reality (the "Rocky Mountains" metaphor is an "as if " approach).

Their point is that any outcome can be rationalized by assuming that "it was preferences that made it so", since "De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum", and also they are unobservable. But then, we could "explain everything" in this way, and so explain nothing.

Their goal is to defend in terms of useful modelling the other extreme: assume immovable preferences and try to find explanations for the observed outcomes based on observable, quantifiable concepts, like prices. I believe the following passage from the first page of the paper summarizes the approach

"On the traditional view, an explanation of economic phenomena that reaches a difference in tastes between people or times is the terminus of the argument: the problem is abandoned at this point to whoever studies and explains tastes (psychologists? anthropologists? phrenologists'? sociobiologists?). On our preferred interpretation, one never reaches this impasse: the economist continues to search for differences in prices or incomes to explain any differences or changes in behavior. The choice between these two views of the role of tastes in economic theory must ultimately be made on the basis of their comparative analytical productivities."

Bold my emphasis.

So the question of the OP appears to be mistargeted: people's tastes may very well change over time, and I don't think that Stigler and Becker would deny that. The question is, can we arrive at more useful economic models by assuming changing tastes, compared to the models where tastes are fixed (while avoiding the "explain everything and so explain nothing" trap)? But this would be a whole research program, not some rigorous argument in a paper.

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