In the NYT, John Tierney looks at the issue:
For half a century, experimenters have been using what’s called the free-choice paradigm to test our tendency to rationalize decisions. This tendency has been reported hundreds of times and detected even in animals. Last year I wrote a column about an experiment at Yale involving monkeys and M&Ms.
The Yale psychologists first measured monkeys’ preferences by observing how quickly each monkey sought out different colors of M&Ms. After identifying three colors preferred about equally by a monkey — say, red, blue and green — the researchers gave the monkey a choice between two of them.
If the monkey chose, say, red over blue, it was next given a choice between blue and green. Nearly two-thirds of the time it rejected blue in favor of green, which seemed to jibe with the theory of choice rationalization: Once we reject something, we tell ourselves we never liked it anyway (and thereby spare ourselves the painfully dissonant thought that we made the wrong choice).
But Dr. Chen says that the monkey’s distaste for blue can be completely explained with statistics alone. He says the psychologists wrongly assumed that the monkey began by valuing all three colors equally.