Sunday, July 11, 2010

Choice Cuts

This appeared in today's DNA.


If you hold fast to the belief that everything is predestined, Sheena Iyengar's The Art of Choosing isn't for you. If, however, you've ever pondered over a career, rejected an arranged marriage or stood bewildered in front of crowded supermarket shelves, this book offers much to reflect upon.

Iyengar, a Columbia Business School professor, examines choice from different vantage points, backed by experiments devised by her and other social scientists over the years. Her book is grounded in psychology but draws upon other disciplines, from economics to medicine. It’s far from a dry-as-dust report: there are personal asides, such as details of her parents’ arranged marriage, and other cultural references from the novels of Don de Lillo and William Styron to scenes from The Matrix to the music of Wynton Marsalis.

In her hands, choice is the thread that, when tugged, unravels the skein of our personalities and the way we live. “When we speak of choice,” she writes, “what we mean is the ability to exercise control over ourselves and our environment”. Loss of control leads to stress, which in turns lowers immune systems. For those facing daily commutes, this means that being stuck in a traffic jam is bad for health.

Then again, the amount of control we’re happy with depends on where we live. Drawing an interesting parallel between Cinderella and Mumtaz Mahal, Iyengar demonstrates that ethnicity determines how we see the world. This is the much-talked-of difference between Asia and the West, the former placing society first, the latter driven by Enlightenment values. There are lessons for HR managers here: on one side, Emerson’s rugged individualism and on the other, F.W. Taylor’s “scientific management”.

Another opposition is between “freedom from” and “freedom to” You can be free from social restrictions, but what is it that you’re free to do? Iyengar draws upon interviews with those from former East Berlin to show how their disaffection with the current state can be traced to this duality.

Of course, it’s a truism to say that it’s our choices that make us who we are. But, as Iyengar points out, it’s not that simple. There are inbuilt biases: we seek information to support our prejudices; we delude ourselves of our uniqueness; and when it comes to expressing identity, we need others to see us as we see ourselves. Awareness is vital: “We are sculptors, finding ourselves in the evolution of choosing, not merely in the results of choice”.

The way people choose is, of course, also of interest to marketers. Here, Iyengar recounts the modus operandi of the famous “jam study” undertaken by her and fellow researchers wherein two sets of shoppers in a department store were asked to pick from different flavours of jam – 24 in one and 6 in the other. Those with fewer options ended up buying more than those confronted with a wide array. The human brain, as it turns out, isn’t wired to differentiate between so many: we like our bread and butter with only a bit of jam.

Iyengar feels that in such cases, it’s best to rely on the knowledge of experts. ( Zagat’s restaurant guides, anyone?) Knowledge is also important when brands such as bottled water, cigarettes or cosmetics offer an illusion of choice but, because most are owned by few corporations, the differences between them are extremely slight. As Socrates said in the marketplace: “What a lot of things I don’t need”.

Undeniably, though, Iyengar’s enthusiasm for citing studies as well as her thorough exploration of the ramifications can bog the book down. There are no easy solutions: she explores issues, points out corollaries and stops short of being prescriptive. As she says, given life’s uncertainties and contradictions, the act of choosing will always be more art than science. To beat the odds, choose to read this book.

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