Review: “The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar

Art of Choosing

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.”

Review: “Tiger, Tiger” by Margaux Fragoso

Tiger Tiger

Who might know a paedophile better than the child on whom he (it’s usually a he) has lavished his attention, sometimes for years? Who has studied him as intimately, allowing him his humanity as most of us refuse to do?

Child molesters, reviled even within prison caste systems, receive little sympathy from the adult world–so little it’s hard for most of us to imagine how long-term sexual abuse can not only be facilitated but also perpetuated by a victim’s loyalty to his or her abuser. Children on whom paedophiles prey, often neglected and needy, advertise hearts as well as bodies to be plundered; for the child who loves his or her abuser, the sexual price exacted for what is offered as affection represents a betrayal from which not every child recovers. The lesson learned–that to be loved one must endure violation–sows a lasting tolerance, even desire, for injury and subjugation.

Spending time with a paedophile can be like a drug high,” Margaux Fragoso observes in her first book, Tiger, Tiger, a memoir of her 15-year relationship with Peter Curran, whom she met at a public pool in Union City, New Jersey, when she was 7 and he was 51. He “can make the child’s world…ecstatic somehow.” Fragoso’s response to Curran, whose genuinely inventive distractions tear her away from the protection of other adults, will continue to mimic the course of addiction, inevitably delivering her to a desperate, entrenched craving for what threatens to destroy her life.

It begins innocently, almost. Under-supervised by her guileless, mentally-ill mother and lacking the well-loved child’s reflexive suspicion of strangers, Fragoso finds a playmate with “bowl-cut, sandy-silver hair,” who “didn’t even seem adult in the sense of that natural separateness adults have from children.” Once she’s crossed the length of the pool to approach him, she asks if she can join him in splashing with his two stepsons. Seven, eight (“the most beautiful age” in Curran’s estimation), twelve, fifteen–as a girl, Fragoso never perceives Curran as he appears to those outside the magic circle he draws around the two of them, can’t see the man her adult self exposes to her readers: by turns pathetic and repellent.

Having binge-watched hundreds of episodes of Law & Order SVU in the past six months, it was incredibly creepy to see how Curran outfitted his home with purple-painted shingles; year-round Christmas decorations; an indoor swing; and a menagerie of reptiles, rodents and birds flying (and excreting) freely inside to demonstrate that in his private Neverland the usual rules don’t apply. Invited to his home with her mother–who, having been sexually abused herself, cannot even in her lucid moments recognise the danger her daughter is in–Fragoso is instantly smitten by the endlessly indulgent Curran. “I want you,” she tells him at the end of their first visit, “to make a schedule of days when we can visit your house.”

It’s testimony to Fragoso’s narrative ability that she can render both her own and Curran’s points of view convincingly, as different–opposed–as they are. Written without self-pity, rancour or even judgement, Tiger, Tiger forces readers to experience Curran simultaneously as the object of a little girl’s love and fascination and as a calculated sex offender who cultivates her dependence on him while contriving to separate her from anyone who might prevent his molesting her. Balanced uncomfortably between these antipodes, Tiger, Tiger is the portrait of a man who will disgust and alienated readers by a writer too honest to repudiate her love for him. There’s little suspense, as we know from the first sentence that Curran has committed suicide and that Fragoso remains sufficiently intact to explain what–who–destroyed her childhood. And while some readers whose appetite for a memoir may excuse the inaccuracies inherent to so subjective a genre, others may require a leap of faith to accept that a detailed account of early youth, including lengthy adult dialogue, could be reconstructed accurately.

So who–other than voyeurs looking for a sustained close-up of a paedophile in action–will want to read this book? To bear witness to a numbingly long series of violations of a child by a man who has honed his wickedness for decades is not more pleasant than it sounds. As a society we energetically oppose sexual abuse; as individuals most of us shy away from investigating a relationship characterised by creepy kisses and inappropriate fondling. Worse, we defend cowardice by calling it discretion–minding our own business. Maybe a book like Tiger, Tiger can help us be a little braver. Certainly, it took courage to write.

WARNING: These extended observations contains spoilers and sexually graphic descriptions.

What begins with mutual intoxication follows a slippery trajectory familiar to victims of long-term abuse: orgies of tickling, hide-and-seek played in the nude, pretending to be “real” and therefore necessarily naked “animals in the jungle,” “Bazooka Joe” kisses requiring two tongues to pass a chewed wad of gum back and forth. An experienced hunter, Curran knows when to watch, when to make a move and what to say. “Only if you want to, sweetheart. No pressure.”

There’s no need to apply any. As Curran well knows, Fragoso’s home life is so punishing she’ll do anything to secure the love and protection of the man her mother has decided “was Jesus in another life.” Once he’s lured Fragoso into his basement lair, Curran explains it is her “great power” that summons the erection of his “magic wand.”  Is it instinct or practice that suggests the perfect words to seduce a child whose father’s alcoholic rages and mother’s frequent institutionalisations have made her feel helpless, without any agency to alter her circumstances? As it happens, the act of fellatio that Fragoso offers Curran as a birthday present inspires her with dissociation rather than sense of potency.

Soon, what appeared a child’s paradise becomes claustrophobic. He can’t live without her, Curran tells Fragoso; if separation didn’t kill him outright, he’d take his own life. When she resists his tightening embrace, he cries. Tears are his currency, as well as praise, gifts and adventures: Curran tries to give Fragoso whatever she demands, telling her nothing can adequately demonstrate a love so absolute it makes its own laws. How can he help doing what love drives him to do? Fragoso, already the victim of her parents’ instability, doesn’t understand that love doesn’t excuse Curran’s molesting her because love would never permit, let alone inspire, such an act.

Nor would love insist she use a razor to remove her pubic hair, or say her vagina began to smell when she started to menstruate. Love wouldn’t work to undermine Fragoso’s connection to her family and friends, cultivating the conceit of an us-against-the-world romance to escape culpability for brutally violating her.

The real cost of a broken taboo is that the revulsion it awakens allows predators freedom to claim one victim after another: because we glance away from crimes–abominations–prevented only by vigilance, the most disheartening aspect of this story is sickeningly familiar. Years before meeting Fragoso, Curran forged papers to marry a 15-year-old; he “hurt” his daughters from a second marriage by “being sexual with” them; during the two years Fragoso’s parents were sufficiently responsible to keep their daughter separated from him, Curran was accused of molesting one of the children he fostered for the state of New Jersey. Tiger, Tiger is an opportunity for its readers to open their eyes and redeem themselves.

Review: ‘#GIRLBOSS’ by Sophia Amoruso

GIRLBOSS

Cover via Goodreads

A #GIRLBOSS is someone who’s in charge of her own life. She gets what she wants because she works for it. As a #GIRLBOSS, you take control and accept responsibility. You’re a fighter–you know when to throw punches and when to roll with them. Sometimes you break the rules, sometimes you follow them, but always on your own terms. You know where you’re going, but can’t do it without having some fun along the way. You value honesty over perfection. You ask questions. You take your life seriously, but you don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re going to take over the world, and change it in the process. You’re a badass.

And so begins #GIRLBOSS, a story of how an eBay seller went from being totally broke to becoming the CEO of a multimillion-dollar international fashion retailer, Nasty Gal.  Author Sophia Amoruso has a strange life story. She went from a high-school drop-out to anarchist shoplifter to eBay seller to CEO, the last transition happening in just eight short years. The big question is: Is her success repeatable? By shelling out over 1000 rupees (like I did), can the reader also become a #GIRLBOSS? (Clarification: This is how the phrase “girl boss” appears in the book. Every. Single. Time.)

Sadly, the answer is that it’s very improbable. While the book gives a fairly comprehensive account of how Nasty Gal came to be, it is severely lacking in genuinely thoughtful advice on how to become a #GIRLBOSS. For someone who got her retail experience from shoplifting bestsellers from bookstores and reselling them on Amazon while hitchhiking, dumpster-diving and reading anarchist literature, I expected a lot more analysis of her transition from freegan to CEO. What it boiled down to was that she got sick of “agonizing over the political implications” of her lifestyle and realized that she liked “nice things“.

That’s fine. Amoruso might not have an answer to the big philosophical questions in life but since she has portrayed herself as a no-nonsense leader, you’d think she has some solid tips on how to run a successful business or be a good manager. Again, the “advice” in this book is full of cliches like “work hard” and “be yourself”. None of it is specifically directed at girls, which makes the unfortunate title of the book redundant. Instead, there is a chapter called “On Hiring, Staying Employed and Firing” which focusses on how to get an entry-level job. And like many successful people, Amoruso likes to emphasize her own attributes and discount the lucky breaks she caught along the way. She got off with a warning when caught shoplifting. She didn’t face familial pressure to go to college or get a steady job. She sold clothes on eBay in its heyday as an alternative marketplace. My problem with bootstrapping narratives like this one is that it implicitly rebukes anyone who didn’t “make it”, as if it shows that they simply didn’t want it enough.

There were also two big issues that the book also failed to address. First, nowhere did it mention the unique challenges that women face on their journey to becoming #BOSSes, like balancing work and family, negotiating salary and walking the fine line between being persuasive and powerful and being perceived as “pushy” harridans. On the contrary, she equates bringing in a baby with you to an interview to bringing in a beverage or a pet and calls them both “Interview No-No’s That May Doom You To Unemployment“. Second, the book said next to nothing about fashion considering the author is the CEO of a multimillion-dollar fashion brand. From what I gathered, Amoruso doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of fashion and compares the New York Fashion Week to a “high-school outfit contest“.

I appreciate Amoruso’s attempt to empower her readers and the life experiences she shared were unique and entertaining, but I didn’t enjoy reading the book. I wasn’t inspired by her personal message as I was by her story, if you know what I mean. Make no mistake, I honestly and deeply respect: her work ethic, her persistence and perseverance, creativity, resourcefulness and entrepreneurial success in creating a highly profitable business without having the advantages afforded by a formal education or financial backing.

Sophia Amoruso seems to be an amazing woman and what she has done for herself is inspiring. But is #GIRLBOSS also inspiring and amazing? I didn’t think so. I would still recommend it to others my age because it might motivate them and they might get more out of it than I did. Speaking for myself, I’d just say…meh.