Posted in books

“The Art of Choosing” By Sheena Iyangar

This book is full of interesting facts about psychology, economy, business, education, culture, marketing and even biology. Sheena’s writing style was a little challenging for me in the beginning, because she prefers to start with a story, setting the scene and then she explains what that story was all about. So, for a while you find yourself thinking ‘What is her point?’. Despite the pretentious writing style of hers, it is still easy to read and her intelligence and wittiness are remarkable throughout the book.

A brief info about the author: Despite the difficulties posed by her blindness, Iyengar pursued higher education. In 1992, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School and a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in English from the College of Arts and Sciences. She then earned her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Stanford University in 1997.The following year, her dissertation “Choice and its Discontents” received the prestigious Best Dissertation Award for 1998 from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. She taught management classes in MIT and Columbia Business School.

So let’s talk about this wonderful book. I will share with you the highlights of the book and the lines that I thought were so interesting and thought provoking.

Enjoy.

In order to choose, first we must perceive that control is possible. We should feel that we have the control to do things. In this experiment, the group of dogs that couldn’t escape and suffered in the first set of experiments tended to show almost no effort to overcome the obstacles although it caused pain to them in the second experiment. Because these dogs, having earlier suffered a complete loss of control, had learned that they were helpless.

BIOLOGY: When we look at FMRI scans, we see that the main brain system engaged when making choices is the corticostriatal network. Its main component, Striatum,  evaluates the reward association. It is responsible for alerting us that sugar=good and root canal = bad. However, we have to also make the connection that too much of sugar can cause root canal. That is where the other half of the corticostriatal network, the prefrontal cortex,  comes into play. While motor abilities are largely developed by childhood and factual reasoning abilities by adolescence, the prefrontal cortex undergoes a process of growth and consolidation that continues into our mid 20s. This is why young children have more difficulty understanding abstract concepts than adults, and both children and teenagers are especially prone to acting on impulse.

WHY: Sometimes we like to choose things even though it is not practical. For example in this experiment, there were two paths that lead to the same amount food, one was branched the other one was direct. So, one held no advantage over the other. After multiple trials, nearly every rat preferred taking the branching path. Another example from human beings: People were given a casino chip. they had two choices; whether they were going to play it at a table with two identical roulette-style wheels and at a table with a single wheel. Even though they could bet on only one of the wheels, and all three wheels were identical, almost all of them chose to play it at the table with two wheels. Why? Because WE LIKE TO MAKE CHOICES.

HEALTH: Health wise, making choices is good for you as well because when human beings feel trapped, having no choice over things, they feel stressed. As you all know stress had both horrible physical and psychological effects. Because of these, captivity can often result in lower life expectancies despite objectively improved living conditions. According to the research, the less control people felt they had over their work, the higher the blood pressure during the work hours. People with little control over their work also experienced more back pain, missed more days of work due to illness in general and had higher rate of mental illness. Another study suggests that minor but frequent choice making can have a disproportionately large and positive impact on our perception of overall control.

RELIGION: Iyengar interviewed 600 people from 9 different religions with three groups: Fundamentalists, conservatives and liberals. To the author’s surprise, the study showed that members of more fundamentalist faiths experienced greater hope, were more optimistic when faced with adversity and were less likely to be depressed than their counterparts. Indeed, the people most susceptible to pessimism and depression were Unitarians, especially those who were atheists. The reason why the author was surprised was this is the controlling nature of religion. It has so many rules and it doesn’t leave you much room in terms of choices. Yet the presence of so many rules didn’t weaken people, instead, it seemed to empower them. Many of their choices were taken away and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives.

CULTURE: Culture’s effect on our choices comprises a big part in the book. Iyengar, talks specifically about one dimension of the cultures: Identity. When it comes to making choices, there is a huge gap between the collectivist cultures and the individualistic cultures. Those of us raised in more individualistic societies, such as the Unites States, are taught to focus primarily on the ‘I’ when choosing, primarily motivated by their own preferences, needs, and rights and give priority to their personal goals over the goals of others. Iyengar also explains the roots of individualism going back to enlightenment of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe where the influence of Greek philosophers, Protestant Reformation, scientific advances  were profound. Whereas collectivism has been on earth extensively  for a longer time. The earliest hunter – gatherer societies were highly collectivist by necessity as looking out for another increased everyone’s chances of survival and the value placed on the collective grew after humans shifted to agriculture as a means of sustenance. As populations increased and the formerly unifying familial and tribal forces became less powerful, other forces such as religion filled the gap, providing people with a sense of belongingness and a common purpose. In Eastern cultures, individuals tend to understand their lives relatively more in terms of their duties and less in terms of personal preferences.

Why is it important to understand the difference between the two: Example of Japanese children and Anglo American children. Iyengar performed an experiment with two groups of children (Please see the chart I made below): American and Japanese children were going to color an anagram. But they were given 3 choices; in one group they were going to choose their own anagram type and the color, in the second group, the anagram and the color were already chosen for them by the teacher and the teacher told them that it was his/her choice, and the third group was told that the anagram and the marker were chosen by their mother. As you can see from the chart, American kids did way better and spent much longer time on their projects (because they enjoyed them) when they made their own choices, whereas Japanese pupils were way more successful when the project material was chosen by their mothers. Another interesting result is that, when the choices were made by this random teacher, a stranger, both groups of children felt the imposition and reacted negatively.

iyengar
A set of charts that I made to explain Iyengar’s experiment on Japanese and American Kids.

Cultural aspect of choice at WORK: The employees working at the same bank and for the same manager – who reported giving the same levels of choice to all the employees – perceived different degrees of choice available to them, depending on their culture. For example: Employees in Asia, along with the Asian Americans, were less likely than Anglo American, Hispanic American, or African American employees to think of their day-to-day activities at work in terms of choice (meaning freedom of decision making is lacking and/or at work, my supervisor makes the majority of the decisions about what I do), and Latin Americans’ perception of choice fell in between these groups.

It turned out that for all the American employees except Asian Americans, the more choice they thought they had, the higher they scored on all measures of motivation, satisfaction, and performance. Conversely, the more they felt their jobs were dictated by their managers, the worse they did on all of these measures. In contrast, Asian participant, whether from Asia or the United States, scored higher when they thought their day-to-day tasks were determined primarily by their managers. Latin American employees once again fell somewhere in the middle, slightly benefiting from both greater personal choice and greater control by their managers.

japanese

WHAT IS ‘FREEDOM’? :Berlin wall was demolished in 1989, even 20 years after its reunification, in many ways Berlin still feels like two cities, divided by a barrier of ideas as powerful as the Wall itself. In Iyengar’s conversations with people from East Berlin, she realized that rather than being grateful for the increasing number of opportunities, choices, and options that they have available, to them in the marketplace, they are suspicious of this new way of life, which they increasingly perceive as unfair: Consider the economic system adopted by the Soviet Union and its satellites, including East Berlin. The government planned out how much of everything – cars, vegetables, tables, chairs- each family might need, and projected from that to set production goals for the nation as a whole. Each citizen was assigned to a particular career depending upon the skills and abilities he had demonstrated in school, and the careers that were available were also based on the projected needs of the nation. Since rent and health care were free, consumer goods were all that people could spend their wages on, but centrally controlled production ensured that everyone had the same things as everyone else, down to the same television sets, furniture and types of living space. So, the Eastern Berliner man said “In the Soviet Union you had money but couldn’t buy anything. Now you can buy anything but you don’t have money”

The Idealized capitalist system provides: ‘Freedom from’ external restrictions, one’s ability to rise in society’s ranks.

The idealized communist/socialist system provides: ‘Freedom To’ obtain adequate standard living, aims for equality of outcomes rather than the opportunities. So while the American  democracy has led to unprecedented national wealth, it also created a widespread inequality.

communist
Home structures from the Soviet Union years, illustrating the effect of communism: adequate, affordable and the same.

TEMPTATION: When we all know that one option will lead to a better outcome, why do we yearn for the other? We have two interconnecting systems for processing information and arriving at answers or judgments.

  • The first one is: the automatic system which operates quickly, effortlessly, and subconsciously.
  • The second one: the reflective system, driven not by raw sensation but by logic and reason, that is the one we have to turn on and tune into.

For example, someone offers you a choice between $100 today and $120 a month from today. What is your answer?

Then the same person offers you a choice between receiving $100 one month from now and $120 two months from now. Which amount do you choose this time?

In the first example, people tend to choose taking $100 right away, here, their automatic system is speaking. In the second example, people usually choose waiting for two months to get $120 and here, the reflective systems is talking. This is a very interesting result because the two is identically the same. In both cases, the person needs to wait for a month between $100 and $120. Therefore, in case of temptation, we may be aware that our desire is being fueled by the automatic system and that we’d be better off if we followed the reflective system, but just because we know the ‘right’ answer doesn’t mean we can bring ourselves to choose it.

According to the psychologist Prof. Paul Ekman, the best way to combine the reflective system with the automatic system; allowing the person to make snap judgments that are also highly accurate  is ‘informed intuition’.

Lake Wobegon Effect (Illusory superiority) is also explained in detail: Ninety percent of us believe ourselves to be in the top 10 percent in terms of overall intelligence and ability.

PRESENTATION AFFECTS OUR CHOICES: Every time we encounter new information or reexamine old information, we’re influenced by its presentation. Research has consistently demonstrated that losses appear far larger in our minds than do gains. We do whatever we can to avoid losing the things that are most important to us, but we don’t take similar risks to achieve gains because we worry that we might  incur a loss instead.

We tend to have a better memory for things that excite our senses or appeal to our emotions than for straight facts and dry statistics.

Research has shown that people are willing to spend significantly more when paying with a credit card than with cash because when we take the bills out of our wallet and hand them over, our senses register that we now have less money.

Even the order in which we encounter options can affect their availability. We tend to better remember the first and last options in a group, so rather than focusing on the merits of each alternative, we may be influenced primarily by the position in which each appeared. This is why items displayed at either end of a store shelf sell more than those in the middle, and it’s also the reason an interviewer might unwittingly pay more attention to the first and last candidates in a job interview. Even in elections, the candidate whose name is on the top of the ballot is most likely to be chosen.

Iyengar also argues that interviewers often subconsciously make up their minds about interviewees based on their first few moments of interaction. In order to break the bias, instead of asking the generic questions like experience and educational background, interviewers should try obtaining samples of candidate’s work or asking how he would respond to difficult hypothetical situations, are dramatically better at assessing future success, with a nearly threefold advantage over traditional interviews.

HAPPINESS: Studies consistently showed that money can buy happiness, but only up to a certain point. Once one’s basic needs are met, the value of the additional material goods that come with greater wealth diminishes rapidly. There are stories proving that rising income doesn’t increase the reported happiness, this is true even for Americans who earn more than $5 million per year.

MARKETING: The name, the packaging  the attractiveness of the product we buy affects our choice making. Iyengar explains in this chapter that big fashion brands create a trend and they impose on all of us from different channels of media to increase their sales, taking advantage of “mere exposure effect”. The more we are exposed to a particular object or idea, the more we like it, provided we had positive and neutral feelings toward it at the outset. That is to say, the higher the exposure a product receives and the greater its perceived social acceptability, the more people will buy it, which in turn further increases its exposure and acceptability.

In blind taste tests people enjoyed all of the wines about equally, but when shown the prices, they preferred more expensive ones since they associate the price with quality.

Everything from the color of a product’s logo, or of the product itself, to the shape of its packaging can change people’s preferences in ways not captured in blind taste tests.

When the bottled water say “pure”, “fresh” “natural” on it, the implication is that any water not packaged in such a bottle is probably impure or unnatural, maybe dangerous. However, Iyengar argues that a quarter of bottled water brands are tap water and federal quality standards for tap water are more stringent and more strongly enforced than the standards of bottled water.

colasanta

In this book, there is an interesting experiment about Coke but I will not write it here. Iyengar talks about Coca-Cola’s marketing strategy quite extensively. Did you know Coca Cola Company holds a patent on the color of Santa Claus? So, Coke is Christmas. Also, free Cokes were distributed in a lot of big events that represented freedom. The collapse of Berlin Wall was one of them. So Coke also tastes like freedom. These positive attributes made the product more than just sugar and natural flavors.

WE ARE UNDER INFLUENCE: Our minds don’t organize stored information alphabetically or chronologically or by the Dewey decimal system but rather by its web of association to other information. Something that activates these automatic associations is known as “prime” and its effect on our mental states and subsequent choices is known priming (imagine a lemon in your mouth, what do you feel? Is your mouth watery?)

Buying  a product that a celebrity also wears allows us to feel a little more glamorous by association

The prime itself may be perceived only subconsciously as in subliminal messages.

In 2000 general elections, S. Christian Wheeler wanted to increase education tax from 5.0 to 5.6 in order to increase education spending. The researchers found that the 26 percent of people who were assigned to vote in the schools were more likely to support schools by saying yes than were those people who voted at other polling locations. They did a similar experiment online. Results showed that the people who were exposed to the school images were more willing to support raising taxes to fund education.

A 2007 study showed that about 70% of elections were won by the candidate whom people rated as more competent based solely on their appearance.

taller
Apparently, height matters: The taller you are the fatter your pay check 

Numerous studies also found out that height and salary positively correlated, especially for men, and highly attractive people of both sexes earn at least 12 percent more than their less attractive co-workers.

SOMETIMES  VARIETY IS NOT GOOD – DILEMMA: George Miller, Professor of Psychology at Princeton wrote the paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” in 1956. For example, determining or distinguishing between the positions of points, the direction and curvature of lines, the hue and brightness of objects, the frequency and volume of tones, the location and strength of vibrations, and the intensity of smells and tastes. For each of the senses, most people can handle only five to nine items before they begin to consistently make errors in perception.

Iyengar talks about the interesting experiment that she performed at a supermarket. There were two booths that were set up for tasting different kinds of jam. The first booth had about 20 kinds and the second booth had only 6. Although the booth with the largest selection attracted 50% more customers to itself, only 3% bought a jar after tasting. They looked actually really puzzled. Whereas the 30% of the customers who visited smaller selection booth  bought a jar.

Some brands actually decreased their product variety down to almost 50% and their sales jumped 10%. Chances are that quite a few other companies could benefit from reducing the amount of choice they offer to the customers. Studies show that when people are given a moderate number of options (4-6) rather than a large number (20-30) they are more likely to make a choice, are more confident in their decisions, and are happier with what they choose.

BUT ALSO, we need to still have variety, because we would suffer from being limited to any single item, no matter how much we enjoy it. We would eventually become sick and tired of it, a process known as satiation. Therefore, we need varieties. A study by the USDA found that as the total amount and variety of food in the US increased in the recent decades, average food consumption rose at even faster rate.

Finally, study shows that people can learn to choose from more options, but they are less likely to drown if they start off in the shallows and then slowly move toward the deep, all the while building their skills and nerve.

20101218_xlp006
When we have 7±2 choices, we get confused! 

 

WHEN CHOOSING COMES WITH THE PRICE: Iyengar leaves the most touching study to the last. Think about the same situation that applies to two families: You just had had a baby and the doctors explained that your baby was in a critical condition and even after weeks, there is no improvement. They say: “Her critical condition implies severe neurological impairments that would confine her to bed, unable to speak, walk, or interact with others. After much deliberation, they have decided that it’s in your baby’s best interest that they withdraw treatment – by turning off the ventilation machine – and let her die.” Here, doctors make the decision and they don’t give any possible courses of action or their prospective consequences.

The second time, in the same situation, they say this “There are two possible courses of action: Continue to the treatment, or withdraw the treatment by turning off the ventilation machine. They also explain  the consequences of each action. If the treatment is withdrawn, your baby will die. If the treatment is continued, there is about a %40 chance that she will die and about %60 chance that she will survive with severe neurological impairments that would confine her to bed, unable to speak, walk or interact with others. Because of her critical situation, the doctors have decided it’s in her best interest that they withdraw treatment and let her die” Here, hearing the possible courses of action and their possible consequences probably made it easier to accept their decision, both increasing your confidence that it was the right one and reducing the emotional stress associated with it.

In the last example, they tell you “There are two possible courses of action: Continue to the treatment, or withdraw the treatment by turning off the ventilation machine. They also explain  the consequences of each action. If the treatment is withdrawn, your baby will die. If the treatment is continued, there is about a %40 chance that she will die and about %60 chance that she will survive with severe neurological impairments that would confine her to bed, unable to speak, walk or interact with others. It is going to be your decision to continue the treatment or let her die.” Here, the choice lays in your hands. You are responsible for the consequences.

In France, the second example takes place whereas in America, the last example is the case for the same situation. With the study done on parents who had to go through these painful times, the results have shown that American families suffered from personal guilt, doubt and resentment much more than French families who blamed neither themselves nor doctors. Because they did not make the choice, doctors did.

As a final word, I highly recommend this great book. Iyengar shares more interesting studies and she expresses her own opinions and speaks with expertise. This book needs to be on your bookshelf. Forever.

Author:

Science lover, book enthusiast, a nerd who dedicated herself to education.

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