How Much Choice Can You Handle?

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Sheena Iyengar has devoted a lifetime to studying the choices we make. This social psychologist’s latest work explains why too many choices confound us.

As consumers, even the rich among us are only getting our toes wet. Indian uber-shoppers who spot Colman’s mustard in local supermarkets may whirl in delight. But even with 20 mustard brands to choose from, we’re still wading in the shallow. Rich Americans are drowning in the deep end of choice, with 250 varieties of mustard piling up in shopping aisles. Can this much choice be too noisy? Social psychologist Sheena Iyengar, professor at New York’s Columbia University, thinks so. A world expert on choice, she’s studied it from every angle, acute and obtuse. Even the colours people choose, despite having lost her sight as a teenager. Her book, The Art of Choosing, about to be released in India by Hachette India/Little Brown UK, describes how ‘muchness’ can paralyse consumers. She speaks to Open about the sum and psychology of choice and how she chooses mustard in crowded aisles.

Q In America, home of free enterprise, you say choice has a dark side. How can free choice actually paralyse a consumer’s mind?

A Well, we all tend to want a marketplace that gives us more and more choice. That’s because we think we know what we want and that more choices will make us happy. The problem is that we don’t always know what we want, so having more choices doesn’t help us.

When you get more and more choices, not only do you have to figure out what you want, but you also have to do the math of comparing and contrasting choices. That is okay with five or seven, but hundreds of choices overwhelm you.

Q How are Indians different from Americans in terms of how we choose?

A Indians are much more collectivist. Americans are more individualistic. At a basic level, Americans ask themselves, “What do I want?” If that inconveniences others, I am willing to accommodate, but only within reason. Indians say, what I want partly depends on what the others who are important to me want me to do. If there are inconveniences imposed by others that will dominate over what we want. So an Indian will ask, “Is it worth it? I don’t want to deal with too many ‘upsetments’.”

Q Never heard this word before…

A Which one?

Q Upsetments.

A Oh, I just made that up!

Q As a Sikh born in America, how did you negotiate tensions where personal decisions are imposed while the country celebrates free choice?

A That’s why I decided to study choice, because I was always in conflict. I was told one thing by my religion and quite another by Americans. Americans don’t understand why Sikhs can’t cut our hair, arranged marriage…

Q You are optimistic about arranged marriage?

A I am not optimistic. I am neutral about the two models. They are based on very different ideas of marriage and what happiness is supposed to look like. I would try to modify both of them. They both have strengths and weakness.

Q What are those?

A In arranged marriage you align the résumés so that they will be compatible on most practical matters, such as language, food, religion and values about how to raise the kids. You ensure there is less to fight about in terms of the basic big questions. But the goal here is duty, fulfilment and harmony. The marriage is framed in terms of destiny by a pre-selected list and an astrologer. But there’s a piece that is often missing, the idea of that emotional bond, a soulmate. It’s believed that affection will develop over time because you are fated to be together. Arranged marriages will get stronger if there is more attention and recognition given to emotional affections.

Q What about love marriages?

A Here you have a union based almost exclusively on the emotional bond. Where love is expected to conquer all and sustain itself despite any disconnect in résumés. But day-to-day workings of a marriage rely on making decisions related to common values. Love doesn’t conquer all when you have different ideas about religion. Or, how to raise the kids. How the house should be run. So you need to be more prepared about where the alignment and misalignment will occur, so you can deal with it.

Q As a non-sighted person, how do you shop at a supermarket, where the shelves are overcrowded?

A That’s an interesting question. I do the equivalent of what you guys do. I ask someone to read to me. I found choice overwhelming and I kept struggling to figure out how to limit the choices. When I asked sighted people, they said it was as difficult to make choices. This affected my research question about how much choice we can handle.

Q You shop on your own?

A I often hire someone to help me. Or with my assistant and my husband. I do sometimes on my own, but not where I have to ask salespeople for what I need. I go to boutique shops where there are less choices.

Q In consumer history, which brand has captured collective consciousness to become perennially preferred?

A There are lots of examples out there. But my favourite is Coke. It’s sugary, it’s bad for our teeth, bad for our health. And yet we associate this artificial drink with everything wonderful: democracy, freedom, America and our favourite movies. At a subconscious level it’s also associated with Santa Claus.

Q Santa Claus?

A Coke has patents on the colour of the can and the Santa Claus red. Most people do not realise that is the same red, but when you see it, it gives you a really happy feeling. Kids associate red with presents, feasts and Christmas day.

Q Malcolm Gladwell and you have worked together. You also share a book agent. Has he influenced your ideas and writing in any way?

A I don’t write like him because I can’t tell stories like he does. He tells a story and exacts an idea. I decided to tell the story of an idea. I was influenced by the idea of describing research, but for me it’s the story of the idea. His tactic is to find the amazing story, and as you tell it, you uncover and reveal some insight. My idea is that I am going to tell you the story of choice.

Q When is choice born?

A We are born with basic desires. My son’s first work word was not ‘mama’ or ‘daddy’, it was ‘more’. World over, the first communication that a baby makes is ‘no’ or ‘yes’. And what is ‘more’ but an expression of preference?

Q We all grieve over our choices, be it a missed discount or a parenting decision. What are the emotional and cognitive costs of bad choices?

A That depends on your outlook on life, on how important that thing was and also how much you fixate on it. We can all tell the story of our life by answering ‘why did you decide to marry?’ You could say it was destiny, or chance, events or choices, and all would be accurate.

The interesting part about the way you end up choosing to tell the story of what happened to you, affects how you experience the outcome. Because if you tell the story as fate or chance, then you don’t have to carry the burden of it being a wrong choice, jo ho gaya so ho gaya... (what’s happened has happened).

If you tell the story of your life in terms of choice, it is the most powerful thing you can do for yourself. Ultimately, choice is the only tool that we have, to go from who we are today to whom we want to be tomorrow. This is empowering. But along with it comes a burden when everything you say and do means you’re responsible for the outcomes of those choices.