The Art of Choosing
by Sheena Iyengar. Hachette Book Group, 2010
In The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar, a business professor at Columbia University and a leading expert on decision making, tells us that making sound choices is even more difficult than we think. To learn how to make better decisions, we first need to become aware of the pitfalls we typically encounter.
Iyengar reveals, for example, that having many options to choose from does not lead to better outcomes, despite popular assumptions to the contrary. For instance, she found that consumers were far more likely to buy jam when given fewer flavor choices, not more. “We frequently pay a mental and emotional tax for freedom of choice,” she writes. To become better choosers, Iyengar proposes that when confronted with an abundance of options, people should focus first on the easiest elements of the decision and work up to the more complex parts.
She illustrates this point using one study in which Audi buyers had to choose among 144 total car features. One group started with the features that required fewer options, such as whether they wanted leather or upholstered interiors, and worked up to features with many options, such as choosing among 56 colors for the car’s interior and exterior. The other group started with the hardest choices and moved toward the easier ones. In the end, those in the group that went from hardest to easiest spent an average of 1,500 euros more on their cars than the other group and reported they were less happy with their decisions.
Iyengar also explains that we often make decisions not based on our tastes but on how we think our decisions will be perceived. In 2000 a team of psychologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University showed that people receiving a free sample of beer chose against their tastes to avoid looking like copycats to their peers. Individuals who picked their beers in private, however, chose what they enjoyed and said they were happy with their decision. Iyengar points out that the people who chose against their tastes were often unconscious of what motivated their decision. Thus, she proposes that one way to avoid strong and sometimes silent influences is to try to become more aware of them in the first place.
Ultimately, Iyengar wants us to recognize that our decisions—both the mundane and momentous—are influenced by many factors and that the more we recognize those factors, the more satisfied we will be.