Professor's Book Probes the Problem of Too Many Choices
Societal norms and the conventional wisdom often extol the virtues of having the maximum amount of choice. Yet is it possible that sometimes less is more?
That is one of the topics discussed in Sheena Iyengar's scholarly, yet quite readable, analysis of the subject, The Art of Choosing.
Iyengar discusses topics such as how much control people have over what they choose and what influence an individual's ethnic heritage has on his or her decision-making processes.
She explains in great detail how people reared in individualistic cultures-such as the United States-often place a greater emphasis on the importance of choice than those from a more collectivist tradition.
"We're told to direct our focus not to the question of whether we can overcome obstacles or barriers before us but how we will do so," she notes. Those societies also focus on people having "freedom from" external restrictions.
Or, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," as Kris Kristofferson noted in "Me and Bobby McGee."
By contrast, she cites a passage in Hindu scripture in which the god Krishna said, "You have control only over your actions, never over the fruit of your actions."
Her points are well taken and her elegant writing and frequent use of anecdotes make this book an effective work of argumentation. She shows more than she tells and never lets the narrative turn into a screed.
That said, her book would have been even more interesting had she discussed why many people in societies where citizens feel their economic and political options are limited-such as many Latin American countries-often go to great lengths to gain entry to countries with more options.
She cites her own research among residents in Eastern Europe after the demise of communism in describing the challenging task many faced in a transformed society where there are more choices overall, but some individuals have more choices than others.
Perhaps the idea of more choices is more appealing than the reality of having to choose from many more options?
If her conclusions are correct then credit unions have a built-in advantage, in light of their focus on member service and offer of financial products tailored to the needs of their membership.
Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia University with a doctorate in social psychology, spends a great deal of time showing how marketers game the system so consumers have fewer choices than they think they do.
The perception that bottled water is more healthy than tap water is "due mostly to smoke and mirrors," she contends. "Nobody wants to agonize over every little decision, and nobody should have to, but if choice is about freedom and exercising control, are we betraying ourselves by pretending that we make meaningful choices as consumers?"
Iyengar contends that in instances when consumers have more choices, such as shopping in mega supermarkets which stock 250 cheeses and 300 flavors of jam, consumers become overwhelmed and sometimes actually buy fewer items. "The expansion of choice has become an explosion of choice, and while there may be something beautiful and immensely satisfying about having all this variety at our fingertips, we also find ourselves beset by it," she concludes.
This provocative analysis and a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom makes reading The Art of Choosing an enlightening and enjoyable experience.