Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar

The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar 

This is a very well written book on choosing. The art, the science, the paradox, the subtleties of choosing. Sort of similar to books as Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (my review), Stumbling on Happiness (my review), Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, and others, but covers a wider swathe of topics, and is gentler in its tone, yet stronger and firmer in its message. Sheena Iyengar writes well, and though not as well as Malcolm Gladwell, she covers more ground, and more authoritatively. A more in-depth treatment on the psychology of choosing would have been welcome though.

Choices give us the illusion of control, the feeling of uniqueness. Which is why we value choices. Which is why we prefer to think that we are unique, different from the crowd of other people. Why do we think we are unique?
In part, it's our self-intimacy: I know myself in excruciating detail.... Rather than being along in a crowd of sheep, we're all individuals in sheep's clothing. [page 90]
The effects of culture go beyond individuals' own perception of choice and their desire to choose (when they do choose), which in turn impacts society as a whole. [page 59]
Sheena Iyengar gently takes us down a narrative on society, individualism, collectivism, and the concept of shared goals to point out that while romance and romantic marriages draw upon emotions as old as humanity, the concept of arranged marriages too has existed since time immemorial, based on the concept of a society's pursuit of shared goals, and that too often one is looked down upon by people based solely on an interpretation of the other as being inferior, the thinking driven more by cultural mores than anything else.

Having the feeling of control, of self-control, is important. Indeed, as experiments on animals have suggested, it could be the difference between life and death.

However, the author is strongly critical, yet, again, in a gentle manner, about the illusion of false choice that advertising and marketing often foists on us.
... when Penn and Teller ran a blind taste test on the streets of New York City, they found that 75 percent of the people preferred the taste of tap water to Evian. [page 151]
Poland Springs, for example, draws its water from man-made wells, including one beneath a parking lot and another squeezed between a dump and a former illegal sewage disposal site. [page 154]
Why? The explanation is something that should be taught in every class on marketing and branding. But rarely is.
... these few megacorporations decide exactly how much variety their brands will offer long before they ever reach the shelves, and it's not in their interest to offer true variety. Rather, they aim to maximize differences in image, thereby generating the illusion of variety and attracting the greatest diversity of consumers at the least cost to themselves. [page 155]
The cumulative result of these tactics is that though we may feel seeped in variety, we actually have far few qualitatively different options than we realize. This makes choosing a fraught process because we spend a lot of energy trying to sort through a plethora of options for no good reason, and we can't help but wonder if the wool is being pulled over our eyes. [page 156]

Think about it this way - how often will you see Coke or Pepsi advertising where they run down branded bottled water? Often? Rarely? Never? Bingo! Never. Both Coke and Pepsi are owned by the same megacorporations that also owns Dasani and Aquafina respectively, it is not in their interest to market and advertise one liquid at the expense of the other.

Choices also carry some cost, beyond the economic or monetary cost. Call it TiVo guilt:
At some point, you simply won't have enough space or money to enjoy all those options. So you'll have to make some sacrifices, and each of these carries a psychological cost. ...  When the options are practically infinite, though, we belive that the perfect choice for us must be out there somewhere and that it's our responsibility to find it. Choice can then become a lose-lose situation... This dilemma can occur for choices from the mundane, like picking a restaurant, to the highly significant, like who to marry or what career to pursue. ... Perhaps the central problem with increasing choice is that it betrays our expectations. We're aware of its positive effects but not its negative ones, so we attribute any harm caused by too much choice to some other cause, perhaps even to too little choice. [pages 204, 205]
The solution lies partly in categorizing.
Categorizing options can also ease the burden of categories, and within any category include a manageable number of alternatives. ... Whatever form it takes, categorization allows novices to reproduce experts' abilities to ignore the irrelevant options and focus their attention on the most promising ones. [pages 210, 211]
No one book, so far, talks comprehensively about the art, the paradox of choosing. However, this book is a good start. Choose from any of the other books I have listed in the review above - they are also excellent.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.