Saturday, December 18, 2010

Author looks at why we choose what we choose

Columbia professor Sheena Iyengar's engaging book shows how we formulate decisions.

The Art of Choosing
The Art of Choosing. Sheena Iyengar. 12/Grand Central. 329 pages.

Choice is good, right? We don't want to be dictated to by anyone. We prefer autonomy and fight for the right to choose what we want, when we want it — except when we don't really want to rock the boat or appear dramatically different from everyone else. But sometimes that's exactly what we want to do.

Make sense?

Well, if you choose to read Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar's fascinating book, you may have a slightly better idea of how humans formulate decisions.

We like to be in control but often consciously (or not) defer to parents, authorities or even strangers. We often say one thing then do something else. Choices we feel strongly about on one day may fade into an afterthought with time.

We may say that we like to have a broad field to choose from, yet greater selection often makes decisions more difficult.

Iyengar writes: "The expansion of choice has become an explosion of choice, and while there is something beautiful and immensely satisfying about having all of this variety at our fingertips, we also find ourselves beset by it. We think the profusion of possibilities must make it that much easier to find that perfect gift for a friend's birthday, only to find ourselves paralyzed in the face of row upon row of potential presents. Which one is really her? Which one is truly the "perfect' gift?''

The answer is that there is no answer, but Iyengar's curiosity about what affects our choices shows just how complex this simple question really is.

She's a scholar, so her anecdotes and examples are thoughtful, illustrative and well documented. She's also an excellent and engaging wordsmith, and her writing throughout the book is rich and quite engaging.

Her frequent digressions and asides are as cogent and interesting as her main points, and certainly as descriptive; an amazing feat for a sightless person but Iyengar's vision extends far beyond the physical domain.

For example, she riffs about choices of nail polish and how descriptions (or lack of same) may alter women's preferences for a particular color. And she takes us with her as she lines up at the Apple Store in Manhattan to pick up an iPhone for her husband, who also shows up to tell her that his original choice of a black device has changed to a white one -- because everyone else will have a black one. Go figure!

Iyengar also extensively explores cultural differences and peer pressure, and recounts a funny tale of committing a faux pas in Japan by requesting sugar for her green tea (featured in her presentation at the TED conference here.

All in all, after reading The Art of Choosing, you'll have a broader context — cultural, personal, about why we choose the way we do.

Despite her title, by the way, I'm not convinced there's any "art'' involved, nor craft, for that matter, but I choose to honor the author's nomenclature as a marketing decision. That's her choice, after all.
Originally published in The Miami Herald.

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