Sheena Iyengar studies how people choose (and what makes us think we're good at it).
We all think we're good at making choices; many of us even enjoy making them. Sheena Iyengar looks deeply at choosing and has discovered many surprising things about it. For instance, her famous "jam study," done while she was a grad student, quantified a counterintuitive truth about decisionmaking -- that when we're presented with too many choices, like 24 varieties of jam, we tend not to choose anything at all. (This and subsequent, equally ingenious experiments have provided rich material for Malcolm Gladwell and other pop chroniclers of business and the human psyche.)
Iyengar's research has been informing business and consumer-goods marketing since the 1990s. But she and her team at the Columbia Business School throw a much broader net. Her analysis touches, for example, on the medical decisionmaking that might lead up to choosing physician-assisted suicide, on the drawbacks of providing too many choices and options in social-welfare programs, and on the cultural and geographical underpinning of choice. Her book The Art of Choosing shares her research in an accessible and charming story that draws examples from her own life.
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“[Americans] 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.”
“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.”
“The American paradigm … leaves little room for interdependence or an acknowledgment of individual fallibility. It requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act.”
“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.”
“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.”
“The typical American reports making about 70 [choices] in a typical day.”
“The typical Walmart today offers you 100,000 products.”
“The key to getting the most from choice is to be choosy about choosing.”