Sheena Iyengar is the psychologist responsible for the famous jam experiment. You may have heard about it: At a luxury food store in Menlo Park, researchers set up a table offering samples of jam. Sometimes, there were six different flavours to choose from. At other times, there were 24. (In both cases, traditional flavours like strawberry were left out.) Shoppers were more likely to stop by the table with more flavours. But after the taste test, those who chose from the smaller number were ten times more likely to actually buy jam: 30 percent versus 3 percent. Having too many options, it seems, made it harder to settle on a single selection.
“The study hardly seems mine anymore, now that it has received so much attention and been described in so many different ways,” Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, writes in The Art of Choosing. “From the various versions people have heard and passed on,” she adds, “a refrain has emerged: More is less. That is, more choice leads to less satisfaction or fulfilment or happiness.”
Now Iyengar is having her own say about the jam experiment and the many other puzzles and paradoxes of choice. More choice is not always better, she suggests, but neither is less. The optimal amount of choice lies somewhere in between infinity and very little, and that optimum depends on context and culture. “In practice, people can cope with larger assortments than research on our basic cognitive limitations might suggest,” Iyengar writes. “After all, visiting the cereal aisle doesn’t usually give shoppers a nervous breakdown.”
A congenial writer, Iyengar is less hard-edged and ideological than Barry Schwartz and less glib than Malcolm Gladwell, who she says encouraged her to write this book. The Art of Choosing should appeal to fans of both writers. It’s full of the experimental results that make for good cocktail party chatter, but it offers fewer explicit lessons. Iyengar favours exploration over conclusions. “Isn’t this interesting?” she asks, rather than “Isn’t this awful?” or “Isn’t this useful?”
Take a mundane question: Do you choose to brush your teeth in the morning? Or do you just do it? Can a habit or custom be a choice? When Iyengar asked Japanese and American college students in Kyoto to record all the choices they made in a day, the Americans included things like brushing their teeth and hitting the snooze button. The Japanese didn’t consider those actions to be choices. The two groups lived similar lives. But they defined them differently.
The daughter of Indian immigrants, Iyengar is drawn to such cross-cultural comparisons. Consider an experiment she conducted with elementary-school children in San Francisco’s Japantown. Half were what Iyengar calls Anglo American, and half were the children of Japanese or Chinese immigrants who spoke their parents’ native language at home. “Ms Smith” showed each child six piles of word puzzles and six marking pens. Each pile contained one category of anagram — words about animals, food, San Francisco, etc. — and each marker was a different colour. A third of the children were told to pick whichever category and marker they wanted to play with. Another third were told they should work on a specific category with a specific marker. With the final third, Ms Smith riffled through some papers and pretended to relay instructions from the child’s mother. In the latter two cases, the category and marker were, in fact, the ones picked by the most recent child to select freely.
The two ethnic groups reacted differently. The Anglo kids solved the most anagrams and played the longest when they could pick their puzzles and markers, while the Asian children did best when they thought they were following their mothers’ wishes. To the Anglo children, their mothers’ instructions felt like bossy constraints. The Asians, by contrast, defined their identities to a large extent by their relationship with their mothers. Their preferences and their mothers’ wishes, Iyengar writes, “were practically one and the same.” Doing what they thought their mothers wanted was, in effect, their first choice.
Anglos and Asians did share one critical reaction: “When the choices were made by Ms Smith, a stranger, both groups of children felt the imposition and reacted negatively.” Just because people happily comply with the choices of an intimate — or, for that matter, an authority they’ve selected themselves — does not mean they want bureaucratic strangers making their decisions. Advocates who want to use psychology experiments to justify choice-limiting public policy should keep that lesson in mind.
Iyengar began her scholarly exploration of choice with an undergraduate research project. She suspected that religiously observant people who obey lots of behavioural restrictions would feel unable to control their lives and thus pessimistic. To test this hypothesis, she interviewed more than 600 people from nine different religions, ranging from fundamentalists to liberals. She surveyed their religious beliefs and practices, asked questions to test optimism and had them fill out a mental health questionnaire. What she found surprised her.
“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,” she writes. “Indeed, the people most susceptible to pessimism and depression were the Unitarians, especially those who were atheists. The presence of so many rules didn’t debilitate 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.”
In retrospect, the result seems obvious. Even many atheists would agree that believing that God cares about you or that your life is part of a cosmic plan can be a powerful source of hope (or, to put it pejoratively, a crutch). Meaning is as important as choice. Besides, Iyengar conducted her survey in the United States, where people are free to switch religions and often do. If keeping kosher or refraining from alcohol makes you feel constrained and helpless, you can abandon those strictures. The only people left in the restrictive groups are those who value the rules. In a modern, liberal society, religious observance does not “take away” choice. It is a choice.
Unlike “provocative” books designed to stir controversy, “The Art of Choosing” is refreshingly thought-provoking. Contemplating Iyengar’s wide-ranging exploration of choice leads to new questions: When is following custom a choice? How costly must a decision be to no longer qualify as a choice? Did Calvinism spur worldly achievement because its doctrine of predestination removed all choice about the hereafter? Do contemporary Americans adopt food taboos like veganism because they crave limits on an overabundance of choices?
Human beings, Iyengar suggests, are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them, from advertising-driven associations to personal relationships and philosophical commitments. Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words. “Science can assist us in becoming more skilful choosers,” Iyengar cautions, “but at its core, choice remains an art.”