Judaism has, at its core, a belief that humans have choices. “Choose life,” Deuteronomy 30:19 commands. But what does it mean when we make a choice, or when we say we like something (or we don’t)? How much of such decisions are formulated and controlled by our conscious mind? Or alternatively, how many of our choices are influenced by the subconscious – where each of us exerts control, but in ways we may not be fully aware of? Which tendencies are innate, and which come from some form of conditioning?

My rabbi, Rabbi Annie Tucker, has explored these questions surrounding Pharaoh’s hardened heart and how much “free will” he truly had. I want to share my thoughts on these questions as a scientist.

How we make decisions and develop tastes is of great interest to the thousands of companies that market their wares to a not-always-receptive consuming public. It’s also an area of great interest to neuroscientists as they seek to better understand what controls or influences the choices we make. While a simple organism, an amoeba for example, moves predictably towards food and away from noxious stimuli, humans are sufficiently complex such that there is no simple framework to understanding these choices. They can be influenced by biological factors like genetics and epigenetics, as well as cultural factors, including upbringing and the cognitive biases it creates, to name just a few.

Consider how we formulate preferences for sensory information. Take sound as a general example, and music specifically. You can travel the world and find people virtually everywhere who are tense, uneasy, and uncomfortable when they hear discordant sounds, or music that lacks harmony. Such dissonance is also used strategically in music to create unpleasant tension that is resolved when concordant harmony returns.

This response to dissonance was once thought to be hardwired into our brains. But more recent research has found small pockets of people, such as the Tsimane (a native Amazonian society), who’ve not been exposed to Western music and find nothing unpleasant about discordant music any more than concordant music. There is even more to the story than just culture and genetics: as people age and their auditory system loses some of its ability to encode temporal information, it appears that they tolerate dissonance more, sort of like the kid who grows up to eventually love his bitter vegetables.

Take wine, for another example. Studies have suggested that people tend to love wine more the less they react to sour tastes. But how reactivity to that taste develops is not clear. Does exposure to wine as a young child, such as occurs in French culture, mitigate the effects of its sourness on our enjoyment of it? Or does it lead us to perceive sourness differently, as a complex boon to flavor rather than something to be avoided? And how does this happen?

As adults, we continue to use inputs in our judgments that we might not consciously notice or admit to. Blind taste tests show that for most people, it’s difficult for even oenophiles to assess the value of a wine without certain valuable clues, such as the price of a wine, the formal rating of it, the label, the familiarity of a region, whether the grapes were artisanally grown, etc. This top-down knowledge is a powerful influence that has been shown to significantly alter the appreciation of wine after blind taste testing, even when these clues were not necessarily true.

Addiction is one place where questions of preference and decision-making come together. For example, what about those who habitually overconsume alcohol? Are people addicted to drinking simply weak-willed? Several different pieces of scientific evidence suggest it’s more complicated than that. For example, alcoholics are far less likely to get sick or nauseous from over-imbibing, all other things equal. This tendency has also been seen in certain cultures where alcohol addiction is more pervasive, which is suggestive of genetic influence. However, binge drinking by American college students and other young adults is less common in those who imbibed alcoholic beverages at a younger age under family oversight, and thus viewed it less as a forbidden fruit (suggestive of conditioning). Experiments with male rats who were overexposed to alcohol over time showed that litters of pups they went on to sire had an inordinate attraction to alcohol, even when raised by non-biological parents (suggestive of the influence of epigenetics).

These examples are just a tiny fraction of the complexity that arises when we analyze how we make decisions. Some of the most pioneering research in this field was performed by the trailblazing Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the latter receiving the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002 for this work (which occurred after the death of Tversky; the Nobel is not given posthumously).

The phrase “The choice is clear” is often used in circumstances where it is inferred that differentiating good choices from bad ones is a simple matter. But choice is rarely a simple declaration of preference when one digs under the hood and tries to find the underlying drivers of decision-making behavior. Understanding this process better may help individuals reach more harmonious decisions in their lives. And perhaps in these polarized times, it may provide a pathway to greater empathy among parties with disparate viewpoints. But much work still remains to be done.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. It is part of a series held at Beth Hillel Congregation B’nai Emunah called How Free is Free Will? – The Neuroscience of Moral Decision Making).