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Interview With Sheena Iyengar on 'The Art of Choosing'

An investigation into how we make decisions

When you wash your clothes at home, are your whites as white as possible? Did you get the best buy in laundry detergent? Do you even know? Grocery store advertisements promising that this product or that will deliver a life filled with radiant contentment along with a fresher, softer, more economical wash-day experience are often more laughable than instructive. So amid the host of choices in the laundry aisle, many of us just keep reaching for what Mom used to buy.

That's OK with Sheena Iyengar. The Stanford-trained social psychologist investigates how people make choices, from retail shops and voting booths to the sickbeds of their loved ones. In The Art of Choosing (read an excerpt), she explains that the strategies we employ to make a choice often have as much to do with our eventual satisfaction as the content of the decision itself.

And while the desire to choose does indeed seem universal — even babies in cribs are happier when they get to choose how much music is played for them — the ways we make our choices vary dramatically across cultures. Embodying a pint-size version of the rugged individualist ideal, Anglo American schoolchildren worked best when they chose their own tasks, in one of the many research studies Iyengar cites. Asian American children in the same study performed best on tasks they were told their mothers had selected for them. French parents tragically confronted with the need for end-of-life decisions about their children were less psychologically ravaged when doctors made the last and hardest choice for them — a surrender of authority shown to be intensely difficult, if not impossible, for many American parents in similar situations.

Q&A with Sheena Ivengar author of The Art of Choosing

Courtesy of Twelve/Hachette Book Group

In her classes at Columbia University's business school, Iyengar teaches moguls-in-the-making how global choice styles can impact marketing choices and management success as well. North American workers suffer when they're "micromanaged," for example. When workers are denied the opportunity to choose how best to accomplish objectives, their productivity drops and their stress levels rise. Workers in other cultures, in contrast, lose confidence in the hands-off supervisory style of managers who help American workers flourish.

From her home office in New York, Sheena Iyengar spoke with the AARP Bulletin about the power and pitfalls of choice, and how we can make our choices more successful and satisfying.

Next: If you feel free, you will be better off. >>

Q. Very early in the book you report on an amazing nursing home study. It showed that residents who were given more choices — about trivial things, like what night to watch a movie or whether to have a plant in their rooms — were actually healthier than residents who were taken care of in exactly the same way, but who didn't have the same impression of exercising options.

A. It's a complicated story, the relationship people have with choice. If you have the feeling of choice, if you feel free, you will be better off. And when I say better off I mean that if people feel they have control over their lives, they call in for fewer sick days from work. They have a lesser probability of having a heart attack or stroke. They live longer. They're happier.

Q. But you're well known for research demonstrating that too many choices can be paralyzing, rather than empowering.

A. What leads us astray is confusing more choices with more control. Because it is not clear that the more choices you have the more in control you feel. We have more choices than we've ever had before. You can choose your job, your spouses, where you want to live, where you want to travel, how you want to schedule your entertainment, which of a hundred different kinds of jams you want to eat. You're really being bombarded, both in terms of the number of decisions you have to make, and choices per decision.

Q. So many of us are so overwhelmingly brand-aware. The ad industry is all about encouraging us to attach tremendous emotional significance to everything from the toothpaste we use to the cars we drive.

A. Absolutely. The obligation to choose has become much more acute — the idea that every single choice is supposed to make a statement about who I am and what I want. That used to be true only of our career choices and to some extent of whom we married. Now it's true about everything, including what color polish we put on our nails and what soda pop we're drinking.

Q. Have you found that people's choices change over time?

A. It's one of the things that we improve on! As we get older, we get better at choosing in ways that will make us happy. We do a better job at picking activities that make us happy, and at spending time with people who make us happy. We're also better at letting things go. We're much more likely to seek contentment and harmony, rather than impossible goals.

Help from people who know you >>

Q. Do we sabotage ourselves less?

A. Get better at controlling temptation? No. You can train yourself — to give up smoking, or eating badly, for example — but it takes more and more effort the older you get. Dealing with large amounts of very complicated information associated with choices about things like investments and insurance plans also gets harder as we get older. We don't do as well with keeping track of all the details, analyzing the trade-offs.

Next: Others can help more than we might realize. >>

Q. You talk at length in the book about one example of a particularly badly designed set of choices for older Americans.

A. Medicare Part D — prescription drug coverage. So complicated. That was badly designed for anybody, but given the population it was intended to serve, it was deadly. It's not as if the recipients weren't motivated. They knew what they were looking for, it was just a tremendously complicated cognitive exercise, to go through all these options, and try to figure out which were better or worse for them. It's amazing how many people were pretty miserable, and pretty angry about how confusing and frustrating it was for them.

Q. You emphasize the importance of having help in making decisions — guidance from experts, or from people who may not be experts in the choice, but who have substantial expertise in you.

A. Life hands us a lot of hard choices, and other people can help us more than we might realize. We often think we should make important decisions using just our own internal resources. What are the pros and cons? What does my gut tell me? But often we have friends and family who know us in ways we don't know ourselves. We're aware of the intentions behind our actions, but others can give us much more information about how we come across to others. That can help when we're making decisions about our careers, or about marriage and divorce, for instance.

Q. And for even more difficult choices, you encourage people to start thinking and talking about them ahead of time, to gather resources early.

A. Eventually many of us will face choices about life and death, for ourselves, and for our parents. We have to prepare ourselves. Do we want doctors to help us decide? Do we ask our parents to tell us in advance what they would want? One option we can put in our tool kit is having others do the choosing for us. We don't have to make all the choices alone, and there might be situations in which others might do the choosing in ways that could help us.

Lynne Warren is an editor and writer from Maryland.