Sheena Iyengar: The Art of Choosing (Full Transcript)

Following is the full text of Sheena Iyengar’s talk titled “The art of choosing” at TEDGlobal conference.

Sheena Iyengar – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

Today, I’m going to take you around the world in 18 minutes.

My base of operations is in the U.S., but let’s start at the other end of the map, in Kyoto, Japan, where I was living with a Japanese family while I was doing part of my dissertational research 15 years ago.

I knew even then that I would encounter cultural differences and misunderstandings, but they popped up when I least expected it.

On my first day, I went to a restaurant, and I ordered a cup of green tea with sugar.

After a pause, the waiter said, “One does not put sugar in green tea.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m aware of this custom. But I really like my tea sweet.”

In response, he gave me an even more courteous version of the same explanation.

“One does not put sugar in green tea.”

“I understand,” I said, “that the Japanese do not put sugar in their green tea, but I’d like to put some sugar in my green tea.”

Surprised by my insistence, the waiter took up the issue with the manager. Pretty soon, a lengthy discussion ensued, and finally the manager came over to me and said, “I am very sorry. We do not have sugar.”

Well, since I couldn’t have my tea the way I wanted it, I ordered a cup of coffee, which the waiter brought over promptly. Resting on the saucer were two packets of sugar.

My failure to procure myself a cup of sweet, green tea was not due to a simple misunderstanding. This was due to a fundamental difference in our ideas about choice.

From my American perspective, when a paying customer makes a reasonable request based on her preferences, she has every right to have that request met. The American way, to quote Burger King, is to “have it your way,” because, as Starbucks says, “happiness is in your choices.”

But from the Japanese perspective, it’s their duty to protect those who don’t know any better — in this case, the ignorant gaijin — from making the wrong choice.

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Let’s face it: the way I wanted my tea was inappropriate according to cultural standards, and they were doing their best to help me save face.

Americans tend to believe that they’ve reached some sort of pinnacle in the way they practice choice. They think that choice, as seen through the American lens best fulfills an innate and universal desire for choice in all humans.

Unfortunately, these beliefs are based on assumptions that don’t always hold true in many countries, in many cultures. At times they don’t even hold true at America’s own borders.

I’d like to discuss some of these assumptions and the problems associated with them. As I do so, I hope you’ll start thinking about some of your own assumptions and how they were shaped by your backgrounds.

First assumption: if a choice affects you, then you should be the one to make it. This is the only way to ensure that your preferences and interests will be most fully accounted for. It is essential for success.

In America, the primary locus of choice is the individual. People must choose for themselves, sometimes sticking to their guns, regardless of what other people want or recommend. It’s called “being true to yourself.”

But do all individuals benefit from taking such an approach to choice? Mark Lepper and I did a series of studies in which we sought the answer to this very question.

In one study, which we ran in Japantown, San Francisco, we brought seven- to nine-year-old Anglo- and Asian-American children into the laboratory, and we divided them up into three groups.

The first group came in, and they were greeted by Miss Smith, who showed them six big piles of anagram puzzles. The kids got to choose which pile of anagrams they would like to do. And they even got to choose which marker they would write their answers with.

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When the second group of children came in, they were brought to the same room, shown the same anagrams, but this time Miss Smith told them which anagrams to do and which markers to write their answers with.

Now when the third group came in, they were told that their anagrams and their markers had been chosen by their mothers.

In reality, the kids who were told what to do, whether by Miss Smith or their mothers, were actually given the very same activity, which their counterparts in the first group had freely chosen.

With this procedure, we were able to ensure that the kids across the three groups all did the same activity, making it easier for us to compare performance. Such small differences in the way we administered the activity yielded striking differences in how well they performed.

Anglo-Americans, they did two and a half times more anagrams when they got to choose them, as compared to when it was chosen for them by Miss Smith or their mothers. It didn’t matter who did the choosing, if the task was dictated by another, their performance suffered.

In fact, some of the kids were visibly embarrassed when they were told that their mothers had been consulted. One girl named Mary said, “You asked my mother?”

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