Ten years ago Malcolm Gladwell released "The Tipping Point" and ushered in a whole bunch of books on what new psychological research has told us about ourselves. Publishers are unwilling to take risks, so there have been many similar books since that time. Thankfully, most of them are as well-researched and written as Gladwell's book.
The latest, and definitely one of the best, is Sheena Iyenga's book, "The Art of Choosing." This book explodes the ideas we have about choice. Did you know that the U.S.A. is the place where choice is valued most highly? In Japan, for instance, people are far more likely to be told where to work and what to wear. Sheena's parents (both Sikhs) had an arranged marriage in India, and there are pictures of the wedding day. Sheena's mother seems to me to be the most beautiful woman in the world (no wonder her husband is laughing at his good fortune).
I knew two Indian programmers that had arranged marriages, but these days the men are in the U.S.A. Relatives back in India contact the parents of suitable women and, in the few weeks of the men's vacation, they go on dates with their "girlfriends," and if all goes well they date some more, until they finally find a compatible partner. This goes against the Western dream of finding a lifetime companion on your own. Apparently millions of people throughout the world manage to find someone, but the spouse is often a co-worker, a co-student, or just one of a circle of friends. We would be shocked if we weren't allowed to choose whoever we wanted to, yet in the current Indian version the women are already expecting to move abroad and to have a nerdy but well-paid husband.
Examples like this proliferate through the book. The new CEO of Coca-Cola in the 1980s had a problem with his senior vice-presidents who thought the company was doing well because they had 45 percent of the soft drink market. He asked them, "What proportion of the liquid market - not just the soft drink market - do we have?" That turned out to be only two percent. The resulting change in the world view of the company led Coca-Cola to increase sales revenue by thirty-five times in just over ten years.
The most famous of Sheena's experiment was the 1995 Jam study, conducted in Draeger's Supermarket in San Francisco. The store was known for its huge selection of every kind of food and food product it offered - 20,000 bottles of wine, 150 kinds of vinegar, and 3,000 cookbooks. Sheena wondered whether the choice was too great so she set up a sample Wilkins Jam taste station which offered either twenty-four or six samples. Anyone who sampled was given a dollar-off coupon for any flavor of the jam.
To the surprise of most people, those who sampled one of the six samples of jam were six times more likely to buy jam than those who tried one of the twenty-four flavors (the six samples were included in the twenty-four). So it seems that there is such a thing as "too much choice."
In the final chapter Sheena discusses choice when the options are limited and either one is bad. Do you take the operation that runs the risk of a five percent chance of dying, or stay with your illness even though it will kill you in the end? There are plenty more mind-challenging things throughout the book, and in the epilogue Sheena talks about seeing S.K. Jain, one of India's famous astrologers, and asks his opinion of her book. Jain says, "This book will far exceed your expectations."
I have to agree with Jain. This book far exceeded my own expectations, and I'm sure it will do the same for you. When you consider that Sheena is blind, I find amazing that she's managed to do all this with her life, and write about it as well. So be artful and choose this book. You won't regret it.