Choice - doughnut or apple

Choose ‘em or Lose ‘em

Nancy Volkers

Editor's Note: We like books. We don’t always read as many as we’d like, but we like them, especially ones about behavioral science. Linked here is a list of our favorites. Starting with this review, we’ll give you a deeper look into some of them — other reviews, excerpts, interviews and more. This particular book is about choice, a topic in the news and explored elsewhere on this site (i.e. here and here). Enjoy.

Oh, and I promise not to mention my own books each time we do a book thing, but, well, I guess I just did. You can ignore that cry for attention or not. The choice is yours.

Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing (2010, Hachette Book Group) starts out something like a self-help book. It opens with stories of two people in life-threatening, MacGyver-esque situations — and yet both survive. Was it chance, or their choices, that led to these happy endings? 

Iyengar knows quite a bit about choice from a personal standpoint. As a toddler, she was diagnosed with a rare, degenerative eye condition; by the time she was in high school, she was blind. Her guidance counselor told her to go to community college and apply for disability payments. She chose differently, attending Penn’s Wharton Business School and then graduate school at Stanford. She’s now considered one of the world’s leading experts on choice.  

Choice — whether it’s a choice about survival, college or what to eat for lunch — is a form of personal control. Which is a great thing, right? 

Choice is a form of personal control. 

But what if there are too many choices? 

What if we don’t have enough information to feel comfortable choosing? 

What if our experience has taught us that our choices don’t seem to affect anything? 

Iyengar’s book attempts to answer all of these questions. It’s meant to be savored and considered, not blasted through in one sitting. There’s a lot here, most of which supports her assertion that “We have to change our attitudes toward choice, recognizing that it is not an unconditional good. We must respect the constraints on our cognitive abilities and resources that prevent us from fully exploring complex choices, and stop blaming ourselves for not finding the very best option every time.” 

What a relief. 

“We have to change our attitudes toward choice, recognizing that it is not an unconditional good” 

Her book isn’t called “The Science of Choosing” for a good reason; she argues that while science can help us make choices sometimes, in the end, choice is a creative process through which we define ourselves and construct our belief systems. She also gives many examples of the biases and effects that keep our choices from being scientific; even if we think we’re using data and being objective, choice is shaped by perceptions, culture and assumptions — as well as by our own previous choices and other people’s choices. 

The book is a mix of Iyengar’s research (she is the S.T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Department at Columbia Business School) and that of others. In a conversational, engaging style, she covers such diverse topics as zoos, arranged marriages, video games that teach math, the fall of the Berlin Wall and nail polish. 

Some of her main points:  

  • Choice, or the perception of choice, is important for both humans and animals. Having limited choices or no choice — or even the perception of such — can cause health problems and hasten death.
  • Whether we perceive that we have choice, and what constitutes a “good” choice is influenced by our culture and upbringing. Individualist cultures (like the United States) see choice very differently from collectivist cultures (such as those of many Asian countries). 
  • The choices we make help to shape our identity. Once we’ve shaped it, we tend to make choices that reinforce it and reject choices (and evidence!) that call it into question. Marketing and branding are huge forces here, and sometimes we use them to tell us what we like, rather than thinking for ourselves. (This explains many fashion trends, particularly from the ‘80s — Members Only jackets! Parachute pants!)
  • Other biases keep us from making evidence-based choices. There are two systems of thought — instinctual and analytical, or “fast” and “slow” —  and a decision made by instinct or “gut reaction” is not necessarily wrong.
  • The advertising industry works because people want choice, and they want to fit in but also feel different and unique (but not so different that they’ll seem weird). 
  • Having too many choices, or being offered a choice when you don’t feel equipped to make it, can be paralyzing and unsatisfying. 

As a graduate student in social psychology at Stanford, Iyengar realized that more choice isn’t always better. To test the idea, she initiated a study in which grocery-store shoppers were offered either 6 or 24 choices of jam, to taste and to purchase.  More people stopped at the 24-choice table, but those at the 6-choice table were much more likely to buy.  

Choice is a creative process through which we define ourselves and construct our belief systems. 

The jam study, now famous (as gauged by the fact that you can refer to “the jam study” around certain groups of people and they will nod knowingly), is covered in Chapter 6 (cleverly called “Lord of the Things”). If you’re looking for tips on how to make better choices, this chapter can help. The entire book is worth reading, though, for an entertaining and fascinating ride through the world of choice.

Nancy Volkers


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