The cation−π interaction and the hydrophobic effect are important intermolecular forces in chemistry and play major roles in controlling recognition in biological systems. We compared their relative contributions to the binding of molecular “dumbbell” guests in synthetic container hosts in water. The guests offered direct, intramolecular competition between trimethylammonium groups, −N+(CH3)3, and tert-butyl groups, −C(CH3)3, for the internal surfaces (aromatic panels) of the containers. In contrast with previous studies, the container molecules consistently preferred binding to the uncharged tert-butyl groups, regardless of the presence of anionic, cationic, or zwitterionic groups on the container peripheries. This preference is determined by solvation of the polar trimethylammonium group in water, which outcompetes the attraction between the positive charge and the π-surfaces in the container. The synthetic container complexes provide a direct measure of the relative strengths of cation−π interactions and desolvation in water. Interactions with the uncharged tert-butyl group are more than 12 kJ mol–1 more favorable than the cation−π interactions with the trimethylammonium group in these cavitand complexes.