The Psychological Difference between Want and Like

Do you know the difference between ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’ something?

Want versus like – aren’t these basically the same thing?

We want something because we like it, right?

Not actually. In psychological terms, they are different experiences, and they even take place in different parts of the brain.

In this post, I describe the role of dopamine in the habit cycle. I recommend you check it out if you haven’t already.

The relevant point for this present discussion is that in certain conditions, alcohol habit causes you to get a hit of dopamine and it makes you WANT to drink. That WANTING can be independent of actually LIKING the reward. And yes, it’s still a reward even if you don’t like it – that’s how alcohol works in our system.

When I learned this, I started paying attention to how I was reacting to alcohol or the possibility of alcohol. I want to share some personal anecdotes that might help you notice this effect in your drinking.


I’ve known for a long time that I don’t enjoy drinking during the day. But every time I would go to a brunch where other people were drinking, I would have something to drink.

I would often half-heartedly resist for a few minutes, but then would find some way to rationalize drinking. And most of the time within about 30 minutes, I was wishing I hadn’t.

The habit cycle has 4 elements:

Cue – Urge – Action – Reward.

The relevant cue for me in the brunch situation was “other people drinking”. It used to be exceedingly rare for me not to drink if there were other people around who were drinking. My brain associated the reward of alcohol with that cue, and then when I was exposed to that cue, I got a shot of dopamine which kicked off the urge, i.e. that wanting feeling.

We, humans, like to believe that we make our decisions rationally using logic, but it’s been demonstrated that we actually decide with emotion, and then find information to justify our decision.

This is clearly what was happening to me – I had a pre-made rational decision that I’d rather not drink at brunch. But when I experienced that urge, which is a type of emotional response, my subconscious would go to my mental library of pre-drinking thoughts and find some to justify that decision.

Once I learned about habits and ‘wanting’, it became a lot easier to not drink at brunch. I can see right through the tricky crap my subconscious is trying to pull on me, and I don’t fall for it. The urge is still there of course, but I know how to allow it without having to respond to it.

First Beer Magic

About halfway through the first beer, I’m just enjoying it.

And then at about the two-thirds point, I would get extremely focused on getting my second drink and third drink. My brain would launch into all sorts of calculations about the logistics of those drinks; are other people getting one, what will my wife think, do I have time, when will the waiter be back, etc.

The sense of enjoyment of the drink in front of me would get completely overshadowed by that urgent desire.

Similar to the situation with brunch, now I know what’s happening, and I don’t have to respond to it. I focus on enjoying the rest of the drink. I’m such a lightweight now that often by the time I finish the first, I’m satisfied. Sometimes, I do get a second drink. But I do it as a conscious decision, instead of being driven by that urgency.


If you’ll practice paying attention to this in your drinking life, you’ll begin to know the difference between what you really want and like, and these dopamine-driven urges. You start to see that these urges are like a toddler trying to manipulate you into giving him sweets before dinner.

This awareness is one of the keys to getting to a take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards alcohol.

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