Review: Sheena Iyengar – The Art of Choosing

Publisher Twelve; 1st edition (March 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0446504106
ISBN-13: 978-0446504102
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You are a business associate, and you need to sell your product, jam. So you set up a sample offering table on the bustling streets of New York. How many sample flavors of jam should you offer? A dozen seems like a good number: they’ll display your company’s versatility and appeal to a broad range of tastes.

According to Professor Sheena Iyengar, this line of thinking is wrong. More people will visit the table that offers a dozen flavors, but fewer will buy the product. Why? Because they’ll struggle with indecision. The table with three flavors makes the decision to purchase easier.

In The Art of Choosing, Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar explains the psychology of choice by exploring it from a range of perspectives: instinct and survival; cultural norms; individualism; advertising and consumerism; and autonomy. Contemporaries like Barry Schwartz have taken a firm stance and argued that people face far too much choice. But Iyengar is more nuanced in her analysis. In her chapter on advertising, for instance, she argues that a little media manipulation is to be expected, but she expresses concern that such manipulation could infect the democratic system. She points to the fact that where a candidate’s name appears on a ballot can have a profound impact on his chance of being elected. The same is true of the voting locations: research shows that people are more likely to vote for education policies if the voting booths are in a school.

Iyengar is not an attack on choice, but a restrained analysis of choice and its problems. She demonstrates how choice itself is culturally contingent, and she makes a compelling case for thinking about it as a biological necessity—a universal language that connects people across cultures. Her book is challenging but deeply rewarding, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has an interest in choice, decision making, psychology, and even business.

Angie Picardo is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance site that’s committed to helping people make better financial decisions, whether it’s choosing the right investments or selecting long-term care insurance.

About the Author

Sheena Iyengar is the S. T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia University and a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award. She holds an undergraduate degree from Wharton School of Business and a doctorate in social psychology from Stanford University. Her innovative research on choice has been funded by the Institute for Advanced Studies, the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Mental Health. Her work is regularly cited in periodicals such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and TIME magazines, and in books such as Blink and The Paradox of Choice.

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