The Art of Choosing Hardcover – Mar 1 2010
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"No one asks better questions, or comes up with more intriguing answers." (Malcolm Gladwell)
"Sheena Iyengar's work on choice and how our minds deal with it has been groundbreaking, repeatedly surprising, and enormously important. She is someone we need to listen to." (Atul Gawande, author of Better and Complications)
About the Author
Sheena Iyengar's groundbreaking research on choice has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Security Education Program. She holds degrees from UPenn, The Wharton School of Business, and Stanford University. She is a professor at Columbia University, and a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award. Her work is regularly cited in periodicals as diverse as Fortune and Time magazines, the NYT and the WSJ, in books such as Blink and The Paradox of Choice.
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On the positive side, the book is well researched and is particularly strong when discussing cultural differences regarding choice and decision making. It is loaded with a large number of anecdotes and research studies.
On the negative side, after having read the book, I had a hard time outlining the key points or recalling a handful of particularly powerful examples. Despite the author's frequent references to the importance of a "narrative," I struggled to find the narrative in the book.
In a nutshell, when reading this book I felt as though I would have learned a lot if I'd had the opportunity to spend a semester in one of the author's classes, benefitting from a rich give and take of ideas and arguing the interpretations of the various research findings and personal perspectives. However, not enough of that experience came through in the book -- the studies and examples were mostly ones I had read many times before, and the integrating "theory of the case" was not strongly presented.
For discussions of decision making as it relates to economic or business choices, I found "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely of Duke and "The Winner's Curse" by Richard Thaler of Princeton to be more valuable than "The Art of Choosing." For consumer choice research and issues, Barry Schwartz's "The Paradox of Choice" remains the standard. To swim in the evolution of decision theory as it struggled to integrate its joint heritage in psychology and economics, "Choices, Values, and Frames" by Dan Kahneman and Amos Tversky is the place to look. On the subject of intuitive decsion making, Malcom Galdwell's "Blink" is exceptionally well written and a joy to read.
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.
In summary, the book itself is extremely hard to follow because it does not follow a coherent theme, does not go through some sort of dialectic to prove a point, and seems to meander from one idea to another. The author seems rather intelligent in many ways, so perhaps she needs a better editor. After I was done reading the book, I had a difficult time even remembering some of her examples or a coherent theme.
The first chapter discusses choice in general, and the drive for survival that is often led by choice (some interesting survival stories and lab tests). The next chapter discusses how sometimes lack of choice can make someone happier---arranged marriages tend to be happier long term than marriages of choice. She also found more fundamentalist religions (with more rules) tend to make people more optimistic and happy in general.
The author seems confused in many of her analyses of the modern world, and these serve to further befuddle the theme of her book. She interchangeably refers to collectivism in Europe and Asia, not understanding the Asian focus on family that led to their collectivist society versus the European focus on the state that de-emphasized the family (read Schlafly "Who Will Rock the Cradle"). Both are so amazingly different that her interchangeable use of these themes was incoherent.
The rest of the book read like many of my other behavioral finance books, complete with the oft overused story of the jam tasting in the grocery store (6 jams to choose from is better than 24).
Ultimately, I have to judge Sheena Iyengar among her peers in the field of behavioral finance. In 300 pages, I do not feel I came away with new knowledge that wasn't written better elsewhere.
For a more practical treatment as it applies to behavioral economics, I recommend "Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes" by Belsky and Gilovich, "Influence" by Cialdini, or "The Science of Influence" by Hogan. The book is not terrible, but there are plenty of better books to occupy your time.
We all make choices every day, from the simple "cereal or eggs?" to the life-altering, "which college shall I attend?"
Sheena Iyengar has written a wonderfully readable book which discusses the many choices that we make every day and delves into the psychology of those choices. Did you know that seven is the apex of the best number of choices to choose from with twelve being too many to remember? Did you know that the candidate at the top of the ballot often receives more votes just based upon the position of his or her name? (Thus the push for states to rotate the position of candidates names instead of just listing incumbents first or in alphabetical order.)
What culture are you from? How does that affect your comfort with freedom of choice? Do you prefer more choices or are you more comfortable if someone chooses for you if they have your best interests at heart?
Iyengar will lead you by the hand to look at the why and how we choose, anything from small to large choices. She has presented a scholarly text, backed with many experiments and references, yet has written it in a way that nearly anyone can follow and grasp the concepts she reviews. Most amazing of all, is that Iyengar travels all over the world, seeks out the resources she needs, and yet has been blind from an early age. She is one very brave and determined woman.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who has ever been curious about why we choose the life we do.
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