‘The Art of Choosing’: Too much choice?

"We all have dreams, big and small, about how our lives will unfold," Psychologist Sheena Iyengar says, in describing her book The Art of Choosing. "What will I become, we each ask ourselves. What job will I have? What career will I choose?" she narrates in a recent Webinar discussing her popular book.

In describing the array of choices available to young adults today, Iyengar discusses the human desire for choice and control, the decision processes that guide our particular choices, and the paralyzing and sometimes damaging side effects of living in a society that perhaps has too much choice.

Too much choice? Is there such a thing? In a society that prides itself on "The American Dream" and luxury of options, is choice ever a bad thing?

Iyengar's most famous research includes her storefront jam studies, where she demonstrates that given more options (24 types of jams), people were actually less likely to make a decision about what they liked, and were more likely to feel worry and doubt whatever decision they finally made. In contrast, when given only 6 options of jams, customers were more likely to select a favorite, to be happy with their selection, and then continue into the store to purchase one of the jam varieties. She went on to show that the average human tolerance for options is 7 things - plus or minus 2. That is, if there are 7 styles of jeans in a store, you will be more likely to purchase one of those seven styles if you are in the need of jeans. If there are more than 7 styles, you are much more likely to leave without purchasing anything. The options overwhelm the decision process.

(The exception to this cognitive limitation, however, is the fact that people can train and become specialized in particular complex decision making processes. The more studied you are in any particular area, the greater the number of options you may be able to tolerate. But this does not translate into excellent decision making ability with regards to everything; this applies only to your respective areas of knowledge and expertise. Are we to become experts about everything to over come this cognitive limitation?)

She further suggests that the fundamental need for choice is flawed: that is, we are conditioned to believe that if we have more options, we will be happier. "If we can just choose the right thing, we will ultimately be happy." She questions the idea that more choice is equivalent to more happiness. "Choice is the big idea we turn to - whenever we come up against our limitations," she says. "We believe if we play our cards right, we can choose our way to happiness." Is this accurate?

Iyengar points out that most people don't actually know what they want. There is a lot of pressure to know who you are, what you want, and make decisions in your life that align with what you want. In today's world - particularly in America - people have an overwhelming number of choices to be made. People are free to choose their careers, spouses, colleges, fields of study, type of employment, where to travel, what to watch on TV, when and how to exercise, who to vote for, and what type of car to buy. The average grocery store reflects this abundance of options (30 types of toothpase and 100 options of cereal in 20 different aisle), and the online world offers exponentially more options for us if we can only research enough. "With all of this choice," Iyengar says, "how do we figure out what we want?"

Iif you don't know what you want, and you have a dizzying array of options to choose from, how is choice helpful? She suggests that having too many options can be detrimental to our health and happiness.

The 'art' of choosing, then, is the deliberate choice to make decision-making easier for yourself by getting out of choices that are not important. "Be choosy about choosing," she says. Focus only on the choices that domatter, and spend very little time on the choices that don't matter. Does it matter if you eat one cereal or the other? Probably not. In fact, this is likely the reason why you eat the same cereal - because you no longer need to stand in the aisle deliberating the choices in front of you. You can grab your Raisin Bran, move on, and get home to your favorite TV show (which, having pre-selected, you also no longer need to think about.)

For more complex decisions, such as purchasing a car, buying a home, or selecting your college major, Iyengar suggests "starting shallow" and building your preferences through simpler, easier to make decisions. If you are purchasing a computer, for example, you may start with the choice "PC or MAC." Your next choice may be "laptop or desktop."

(One would wonder if particular firms like Apple have perfected this choice heuristic: Rather than 52 varieties of the ipod, there are 5 types. The biggest choice you may have to make (after asking "do I want an ipod or not?") is probably what color you are going to get. And wouldn't you know it - there are 9 color options. If you've ever been the person to feel overwhelmed, lost and confused in a Best Buy store or a Car Dealership, it's probably because the number of choices in front of you is overwhelming. How can you possibly pick out a camera from 100 options? The process seems daunting, exhausting. The apple store, however, is cleverly designed to present a seemingly simple set of choices for the untrained, while also offering many more subtle layers of options for the more devoted apple fans.)

Many decisions can also be made easier by eliminating unnecessary clutter around the decision making process and reducing the decision to the few components that actually matter. Finally, you can rely on networks or friends you trust. You can save yourself energy in the decision making process by subscribing to networks, magazines, and listening to your friends' opinions. In some cases, you might end up happier being more naive in your decision making process - perhaps only spending a few minutes of research - because you made the decision.

In the face of daunting decision to be made, and an overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips, we must learn to be choosy about choosing. And that, she says, is the art of choosing.

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