The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar


(Excerpted from Sheena Iyengar)

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... I hope you’ll start thinking about some of your own assumptions and how they were shaped by your backgrounds.

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.” The 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 second assumption 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. For Eastern Europeans, the sudden availability of all these consumer products on the marketplace was a deluge. A sociologist... explained, “The older generation jumped from nothing to choice all around them. They were never given a chance to learn how to react.” And Tomasz, a young Polish man said, “I don’t need twenty kinds of chewing gum. I don’t mean to say that I want no choice, but many of these choices are quite artificial.”

The third assumption This brings me to the third, and perhaps most problematic, assumption: “You must never say no to choice.” The...doctors gave the Mitchells a choice: They could either remove [baby] Barbara off the life support, in which case she would die within a matter of hours, or they could keep her on life support, in which case she might still die within a matter of days. If she survived, she would remain in a permanent vegetative state, never able to walk, talk or interact with others. What do they do? What do any parent do?

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