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.
Her book The Art of Choosing shares her research in an accessible and charming story that draws examples from her own life.
Americans tend to believe that they’ve reached some sort of pinnacle in the way they practice choice. They 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.
First assumption: if a choice affects you, then you should be the one to make it.
This is the only way to ensure that your preferences and interests will be most fully accounted for. It is essential for success. In America, the primary locus of choice is the individual. People must choose for themselves, sometimes sticking to their guns, regardless of what other people want or recommend. It’s called “being true to yourself.” But do all individuals benefit from taking such an approach to choice?
The second assumption which informs the American view of choice goes something like this. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to make the best choice.
So bring it on, Walmart, with 100,000 different products, and Amazon, with 27 million books and Match.com with — what is it? — 15 million date possibilities now. You will surely find the perfect match.
The value of choice depends on our ability to perceive differences between the options. Americans train their whole lives to play “spot the difference.” They practice this from such an early age that they’ve come to believe that everyone must be born with this ability. In fact, though all humans share a basic need and desire for choice, we don’t all see choice in the same places or to the same extent. When someone can’t see how one choiceis unlike another, or when there are too many choices to compare and contrast, the process of choosing can be confusing and frustrating. Instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed by choice,sometimes even afraid of it.
Choice no longer offers opportunities, but imposes constraints. It’s not a marker of liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutiae. In other words, choice can develop into the very opposite of everything it represents in America when it is thrust upon those who are insufficiently prepared for it. But it is not only other people in other places that are feeling the pressure of ever-increasing choice. Americans themselves are discovering that unlimited choice seems more attractive in theory than in practice.
The third, and perhaps most problematic, assumption: “You must never say no to choice.”
In her essay, “The White Album,” Joan Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely by the impositionof a narrative line upon disparate images, by the idea with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria, which is our actual experience.” The story Americans tell, the story upon which the American dream depends, is the story of limitless choice. This narrative promises so much: freedom, happiness, success. It lays the world at your feet and says, “You can have anything, everything.” It’s a great story, and it’s understandable why they would be reluctant to revise it. But when you take a close look, you start to see the holes, and you start to see that the story can be told in many other ways
Americans have so often tried to disseminate their ideas of choice, believing that they will be, or ought to be, welcomed with open hearts and minds. But the history books and the daily news tell us it doesn’t always work out that way. 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. Moreover, Americans themselves could benefit from incorporating new perspectives into their own narrative, which has been driving their choices for so long.