The dose optimization in inverse planning is realized under the guidance of an objective function. The prescription doses in a conventional approach are usually rigid values, defining in most instances an ill-conditioned optimization problem. In this work, we propose a more general dose optimization scheme based on a statistical formalism [Xing et al., Med. Phys. 21, 2348-2358 (1999)]. Instead of a rigid dose, the prescription to a structure is specified by a preference function, which describes the user's preference over other doses in case the most desired dose is not attainable. The variation range of the prescription dose and the shape of the preference function are predesigned by the user based on prior clinical experience. Consequently, during the iterative optimization process, the prescription dose is allowed to deviate, with a certain preference level, from the most desired dose. By not restricting the prescription dose to a fixed value, the optimization problem becomes less ill-defined. The conventional inverse planning algorithm represents a special case of the new formalism. An iterative dose optimization algorithm is used to optimize the system. The performance of the proposed technique is systematically studied using a hypothetical C-shaped tumor with an abutting circular critical structure and a prostate case. It is shown that the final dose distribution can be manipulated flexibly by tuning the shape of the preference function and that using a preference function can lead to optimized dose distributions in accordance with the planner's specification. The proposed framework offers an effective mechanism to formalize the planner's priorities over different possible clinical scenarios and incorporate them into dose optimization. The enhanced control over the final plan may greatly facilitate the IMRT treatment planning process.