Transitivity of Preferences

Michel Regenwetter, Jason Dana, Clintin P. Davis-Stober

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Transitivity of preferences is a fundamental principle shared by most major contemporary rational, prescriptive, and descriptive models of decision making. To have transitive preferences, a person, group, or society that prefers choice option x to y and y to z must prefer x to z. Any claim of empirical violations of transitivity by individual decision makers requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. We discuss why unambiguous evidence is currently lacking and how to clarify the issue. In counterpoint to Tversky's (1969) seminal " Intransitivity of Preferences," we reconsider his data as well as those from more than 20 other studies of intransitive human or animal decision makers. We challenge the standard operationalizations of transitive preferences and discuss pervasive methodological problems in the collection, modeling, and analysis of relevant empirical data. For example, violations of weak stochastic transitivity do not imply violations of transitivity of preference. Building on past multidisciplinary work, we use parsimonious mixture models, where the space of permissible preference states is the family of (transitive) strict linear orders. We show that the data from many of the available studies designed to elicit intransitive choice are consistent with transitive preferences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)42-56
Number of pages15
JournalPsychological review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2011


  • Rationality
  • Stochastic transitivity
  • Transitivity
  • Triangle inequality
  • Utility theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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  • Exeter Prize

    Regenwetter, Michel (Recipient), Davis-Stober, Clintin P. (Recipient) & Dana, Jason (Recipient), 2012

    Prize: Prize/Award

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