But the history books and the daily news tell us it doesn’t always work out that way. The phantasmagoria, the actual experience that we try to understand and organize through narrative, varies from place to place. No single narrative serves the needs of everyone everywhere.
Moreover, Americans themselves could benefit from incorporating new perspectives into their own narrative, which has been driving their choices for so long.
Robert Frost once said that, “It is poetry that is lost in translation.” This suggests that whatever is beautiful and moving, whatever gives us a new way to see, cannot be communicated to those who speak a different language.
But Joseph Brodsky said that, “It is poetry that is gained in translation,” suggesting that translation can be a creative, transformative act.
When it comes to choice, we have far more to gain than to lose by engaging in the many translations of the narratives. Instead of replacing one story with another, we can learn from and revel in the many versions that exist and the many that have yet to be written.
No matter where we’re from and what your narrative is, we all have a responsibility to open ourselves up to a wider array of what choice can do, and what it can represent. And this does not lead to a paralyzing moral relativism.
Rather, it teaches us when and how to act. It brings us that much closer to realizing the full potential of choice, to inspiring the hope and achieving the freedom that choice promises but doesn’t always deliver.
If we learn to speak to one another, albeit through translation, then we can begin to see choice in all its strangeness, complexity and compelling beauty.
BRUNO GIUSSANI: Thank you. Sheena, there is a detail about your biography that we have not written in the program book. But by now it’s evident to everyone in this room. You’re blind. And I guess one of the questions on everybody’s mind is: How does that influence your study of choosing because that’s an activity that for most people is associated with visual inputs like aesthetics and color and so on?
SHEENA IYENGAR: Well, it’s funny that you should ask that because one of the things that’s interesting about being blind is you actually get a different vantage point when you observe the way sighted people make choices.
And as you just mentioned, there’s lots of choices out there that are very visual these days. Yeah, I — as you would expect — get pretty frustrated by choices like what nail polish to put on because I have to rely on what other people suggest. And I can’t decide.
And so one time I was in a beauty salon, and I was trying to decide between two very light shades of pink. And one was called “Ballet Slippers.” And the other one was called “Adorable.”
And so I asked these two ladies, and the one lady told me, “Well, you should definitely wear ‘Ballet Slippers.'”
“Well, what does it look like?”
“Well, it’s a very elegant shade of pink.”
The other lady tells me to wear “Adorable.”
“What does it look like?”
“It’s a glamorous shade of pink.”
And so I asked them, “Well, how do I tell them apart? What’s different about them?”
And they said, “Well, one is elegant, the other one’s glamorous.”
Okay, we got that. And the only thing they had consensus on: well, if I could see them, I would clearly be able to tell them apart. And what I wondered was whether they were being affected by the name or the content of the color, so I decided to do a little experiment.
So I brought these two bottles of nail polish into the laboratory, and I stripped the labels off. And I brought women into the laboratory, and I asked them, “Which one would you pick?” 50% of the women accused me of playing a trick, of putting the same color nail polish in both those bottles.
At which point you start to wonder who the trick’s really played on. Now, of the women that could tell them apart, when the labels were off, they picked “Adorable,” and when the labels were on, they picked “Ballet Slippers.”
So as far as I can tell, a rose by any other name probably does look different and maybe even smells different.
BRUNO GIUSSANI: Thank you. Sheena Iyengar. Thank you Sheena.
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