Every time I have to make as mundane a choice as what type of toothpaste I should buy, I’m overwhelmed and momentarily freeze with panic. Even in Thailand, my local grocery store or Tesco Lotus has at least a few dozen different combinations of brands, flavors, and types of toothpaste. Citrus, citrus-herb, salt-herb, mint, cool mint, bright mint, gel, paste, fluoride, whitening, stain-removal, super-whitening, etc. The mind spins at such options.
You can imagine my fascination then to listen to a talk by Sheena Iyengar at a TED conference about the art of choosing and cultural bias in beliefs about choice. Ms. Iyengar is a professor at Columbia Business School whose research focuses on choice and how people choose.
In her speech, she examines a trio of American assumptions about choice and discusses studies she has done in various parts countries comparing different cultural reactions to these assumptions. The assumptions are:
- Make your own choices.
- More options lead to better choices.
- Never say “no” to choice.
I’m embedding the speech here, which is worth the 22 minutes of your time it will take to watch. But for those of you who cannot watch the video or do not wish to take the time, I’ll summarize her observations. My own conclusions are all the way at the bottom.
Assumption 1: It is best to make your own choices
If a choice affects you, then you should be the one to make it. This is captured in the American concept of “being true to yourself.” Ms. Iyengar and a colleague performed studies to test this assumption.
In one study, she brought 7 to 9 year old Anglo-American and first generation Asian-Americans into the laboratory, dividing them into groups. The first group was given a choice of six sets of word puzzles to complete and also a choice in the color of pen with which to complete the puzzles. The second group was show the same six sets, but “Ms. Smith” told them which set they would perform and which pen color they would use. The third group was shown the same six sets, but Ms. Smith told them their mothers had chosen which puzzles and color of markers they would use. In reality, the second and third groups performed the same set of puzzles and used the same pen color the first group had chosen.
The results differed markedly depending on how the activity was administered. Anglo-American children in the first group completed two and a half times as many word puzzles as in the second and third groups. It didn’t matter who did the choosing – Ms. Smith or their mother – if their task was chosen by another person, their performance suffered. In contrast, Asian-American children performed best when they believed the task had been chosen by their mother, second best when they chose for themselves, and worst when Ms. Smith chose their task and pen color.
Ms. Iyengar’s conclusion is that the first-generation Asian-American children were strongly influenced by their immigrant parents’ approach to choice. Choice was not just a way of defining and asserting themselves, it was also a way to create community by deferring to the choices of those whom they trusted and respected. The assumption that we do best when the individual self chooses, only holds when that “self” is clearly divided from others. If the individuals see their choices as intimately connected, they may amplify one-another’s success by turning choosing into a collective act.
“People who have grown up in [the American paradigm of choice] might find it motivating.” notes Ms. Iyengar. “But it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.”
Assumption 2: More options lead to better choices
Ms. Iyengar traveled to locations in Eastern Europe where people had had to adjust to the transition from a communist to capitalist society. She discovered that many of the perceptions Americans have of choice are often trivial (my choices of toothpaste, for example). She stumbled upon this when offering interview subjects a choice of beverages before the interview – seven different types of soda – only to discover that to the interview subjects, she wasn’t offering seven different options but only one: soda. If she offered juice, water, and the seven brands of soda and she asked how many choices they had, they uniformly identified three choices.
Americans have been conditioned to see each of these little choices as significant and as a representation of who we are. “Coke or Pepsi?” becomes a lifestyle and identification choice rather than a meaningful distinction between beverages. A Polish interview subject summed it up well when saying that he didn’t need the choice of twenty different types of chewing gum. “I don’t mean to say I want to have no choice,” he said, “but many of these choices are very artificial.”
“The value of choice,” notes Ms. Iyengar, “lies in our ability to see the differences between the options. Americans train their whole lives to play ‘spot the difference.’ … 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.”
Ultimately, too much choice can lead to “suffocation by meaningless minutiae.” Ms. Iyengar has observed in her studies that when people are given more than ten choices, they generally make poorer choices. And yet many Americans believe they should make all their own choices and seek out more of them.
Which leads to the third assumption:
Assumption 3: Never say “no” to choice
Ms. Iyengar interviewed parents whose infants had developed cerebral anoxia (a loss of oxygen to the brain) and had to be placed on a ventilator. The decision had been made to remove the infant from the machine, letting it die within a few hours, instead of keeping the infant on the machine in a permanent vegetative state.
Ms. Iyengar interviewed parents in France and in the United States in the months following their infant’s removal from the life support machine and subsequent death. The difference was that in France, the decision to remove life support had been made by doctors whereas in the United States, the parents made the final decision.
Ms. Iyengar wondered whether this decision affected the way the parents coped with the loss of their infant. Ms. Iyengar and her researchers found that it did. Even up to a year after the loss, approximately 90% of American parents were expressing negative emotions about the event compared to only about 67%* of French parents. French parents’ comments were characterized by statements like, “He was here for so little time, yet he taught us so much.” American parents were characterized by statements like, “I feel like they tortured me; how did they expect me to make that choice?”
Yet, when American parents were asked if they would rather have had the doctor made the decision, they said no. Some 75% of them couldn’t imagine turning that choice over to someone else, despite the negative repercussions of having had to make that choice themselves. Among French parents, only about 33% of them indicated they would rather have made the choice instead of the doctor.
*I’m estimating percentages based on the graphs. In her speech, Ms. Iyengar doesn’t provide specific numbers.
Ms. Iyengar concludes:
“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 open minds. But the history books and the daily news tell us, it doesn’t always work out that way. The … actual experience that we try to organize and understand 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.”
For me, this speech was thought-provoking, a reminder of something I know experientially to be true but which slips to the back of my mind all too often: There is no single right way of looking at the world. Our values and frame of reference through which we see the world are tremendously dependent upon our culture, background, experiences, and upbringing.
The fact there is no single right way is the source of so much conflict and miscommunication in the world. If we really want to understand other people in this world, we have to check our assumptions and be prepared to see the world in radically different ways.
That’s much easier to say than it is to do.