Sheena Iyengar: The Art of Choosing (Full Transcript)

In contrast, Asian-American children performed best when they believed their mothers had made the choice, second best when they chose for themselves, and least well when it had been chosen by Miss Smith.

A girl named Natsumi even approached Miss Smith as she was leaving the room and tugged on her skirt and asked, “Could you please tell my mommy I did it just like she said?”

The first-generation children were strongly influenced by their immigrant parents’ approach to choice. For them, choice was not just a way of defining and asserting their individuality, but a way to create community and harmony by deferring to the choices of people whom they trusted and respected.

If they had a concept of being true to one’s self, then that self, most likely, was composed, not of an individual, but of a collective. Success was just as much about pleasing key figures as it was about satisfying one’s own preferences. Or, you could say that the individual’s preferences were shaped by the preferences of specific others.

The assumption then that we do best when the individual self chooses only holds when that self is clearly divided from others.

When, in contrast, two or more individuals see their choices and their outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify one another’s success by turning choosing into a collective act.

To insist that they choose independently might actually compromise both their performance and their relationships. Yet that is exactly what the American paradigm demands. It leaves little room for interdependence or an acknowledgment of individual fallibility.

It requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act. People that have grown up in such a paradigm might find it motivating, but it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.

The second assumption which informs the American view of choice goes something like this. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to make the best choice.

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So bring it on, Walmart, with 100,000 different products, and Amazon, with 27 million books and Match.com with — what is it? — 15 million date possibilities now. You will surely find the perfect match.

Let’s test this assumption by heading over to Eastern Europe. Here, I interviewed people who were residents of formerly communist countries, who had all faced the challenge of transitioning to a more democratic and capitalistic society.

One of the most interesting revelations came not from an answer to a question, but from a simple gesture of hospitality. When the participants arrived for their interview, I offered them a set of drinks: Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite — seven, to be exact.

During the very first session, which was run in Russia, one of the participants made a comment that really caught me off guard.

“Oh, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all just soda. That’s just one choice.”

I was so struck by this comment that from then on, I started to offer all the participants those seven sodas, and I asked them, “How many choices are these?”

Again and again, they perceived these seven different sodas, not as seven choices, but as one choice: soda or no soda.

When I put out juice and water in addition to these seven sodas, now they perceived it as only three choices — juice, water and soda.

Compare this to the die-hard devotion of many Americans, not just to a particular flavor of soda, but to a particular brand. You know, research shows repeatedly that we can’t actually tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi. Of course, you and I know that Coke is the better choice.

For modern Americans who are exposed to more options and more ads associated with options than anyone else in the world, choice is just as much about who they are as it is about what the product is.

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Combine this with the assumption that more choices are always better, and you have a group of people for whom every little difference matters and so every choice matters.

But for Eastern Europeans, the sudden availability of all these consumer products on the marketplace was a deluge. They were flooded with choice before they could protest that they didn’t know how to swim.

When asked, “What words and images do you associate with choice?” Grzegorz from Warsaw said, “Ah, for me it is fear. There are some dilemmas you see. I am used to no choice.”

Bohdan from Kiev said, in response to how he felt about the new consumer marketplace, “It is too much. We do not need everything that is there.”

A sociologist from the Warsaw Survey Agency explained, “The older generation jumped from nothing to choice all around them. They were never given a chance to learn how to react.”

And Tomasz, a young Polish man said, “I don’t need twenty kinds of chewing gum. I don’t mean to say that I want no choice, but many of these choices are quite artificial.”

In reality, many choices are between things that are not that much different. The value of choice depends on our ability to perceive differences between the options.

Americans train their whole lives to play “spot the difference.” They practice this from such an early age that they’ve come to believe that everyone must be born with this ability.

In fact, though all humans share a basic need and desire for choice, we don’t all see choice in the same places or to the same extent. When someone can’t see how one choice is unlike another, or when there are too many choices to compare and contrast, the process of choosing can be confusing and frustrating.

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