Coke or Pepsi. Bush or Gore. Sink or swim. If asked to select from any of these pairs, you might assume taste, political affiliation and basic human nature would influence your respective choices. But in Sheena Iyengar’s view, it’s more likely that emotional ties to a brand, the randomness of where a name appears on a ballot and the notion that survival is still possible are what swayed you in one direction or another.
And Iyengar should know. A professor at Columbia University and innovator in the study of choice, her work has been cited by many authors; you’ll probably find that you’ve heard of at least one of her studies before, such as the “jam study.” Iyengar and her research team set up an experiment in a Draeger’s supermarket in which they let customers sample from either six or 24 flavors of gourmet jam. Thirty percent of those who sampled from the smaller batch bought a jar of jam, but only 3 percent who sampled from the larger group made a purchase. The moral? Sometimes less to choose from leads to more in terms of sales; too many choices may dissuade us from making any choice at all.
In The Art of Choosing, Iyengar recounts her studies and observations with an emphasis on helping us to be more thoughtful and better-informed when faced with decisions. Sometimes that’s just a matter of knowing you have choices; at other times, eliminating multiple options is the key to wise decisions. “Unlike captive animals,” she writes, “. . . we have the ability to create choice by altering our interpretations of the world.” So can we filter out bias and rely only on our core values to make decisions?
The book’s studies and hypothetical questions draw from psychology, economics, medicine, philosophy and other fields to show how often choice is an issue; this grab-bag approach keeps the writing from bogging down in any one topic while still making points effectively. Iyengar’s wit and engaging writing style ease the reader through chapters on harder choices, from taking a loved one off life support to the paradox inherent in American life: that freedom of choice should make us happy, but having too many options is overwhelming and often leads to depression. These and other hard choices—even “Sophie’s Choice”—are thoughtfully explored. She also offers a description of her parents’ arranged marriage as an example of freedom from choice.
Iyengar hopes that understanding the thinking behind our choices may lead us to “metaphorical multilingualism,” or understanding that goes beyond mere tolerance. She manifests it in her own work by writing with “sighted” language despite being blind since early childhood, and she encourages others to take a step outside what they might consider normal in order to enlarge their own views on life. Read The Art of Choosing, and be prepared to see the options life presents you through new eyes.
Heather Seggel reads and writes in Ukiah, California.