TEDGlobal: Sheena Iyengar and the paradox of choice

Columbia University psychologist and business professor Sheena Iyengar promises to take us around the world in her 18 TED minutes. She begins in Kyoto, Japan where she was doing her dissertation research. She tells a funny story about trying to order green tea with sugar and being politely told, “One does not put sugar in green tea.” Escalating the conflict, the manager got involved and told her “We have no sugar.” So she ordered coffee… and was served a cup promptly… with sugar.

From the American perspective, the diner has the right to have it your way because, as Starbucks says, “happiness is in your choices”. In the Japanese perspective, the job is to correct the customer’s mistake and help her save face – hence, they prevented her from sweetening her green tea.

Cultures shape how we make choices, and we need to consider the assumptions behind the ways we make choices. One cultural assumption is that choice is the individual’s and that we might fight hard to defend these choices.

She tells us about an experiment conducted in Japantown in San Francisco. Three groups of children were asked to do a basic task – solving anagrams with markers. One group chose the anagrams and the markers. Another group had tasks chosen by an experimenter, and another had tasks chosen by their mothers. Anglo-American children performed best when they chose for themselves… Asian-American children did best when they were told their mothers had chosen the task, and least well when the arbitrary other chose the task.

First generation immigrants showed a deference to parental authority. Success in the experiment was as much about satisfying the parent’s preference as personal preference. The assumption of choice as individual makes sense only if there’s an isolated individual – it’s possible that in some cultures, there’s an assumption of interdependence, where the idea of choice as private and self-defining isn’t as powerful. It’s a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.

A second assumption: the more choices you have, the better choices you’re likely to make. Think of WalMart, Amazon, online dating sites. In Eastern Europe, Iyengar interviewed people who’d lived through the transition between controlled and market economies. She offered a group of Russian speakers a set of seven different sodas – her respondents consistently said, “That isn’t a choice – they’re all soda”. When she added juice and water to the set, they perceived it as a set of three choices. Compare this to Americans’ devotion to soda brands – research tells us that we can’t reliably tell between two brands of cola.

For Eastern Europeans, the sudden availability of consumer products was “a deluge before people knew how to swim.” Choice led to fear – people felt like there was too much to cope with: “The older generation jumped from nothing to choice all around them,” “In reality, many choices are between things that are not much different.”

More choices can be confusing and frustrating, sometimes terrifying. Choice isn’t always a marker of freedom, but it can suffocate us with meaningless minutia.

Americans train all their lives to “spot the difference”. And yet, we’re often pretty bad at this.

The third, and perhaps most problematic assumption: “You must never say no to choice”.

Iyengar tells us a story about a couple who gave birth to a child. Unfortunately the baby, Barbara, suffered hypooxia, and could only survive on life support. The parents and doctor had an impossible choice – remove the child from life support, or allow her to survive, but as a vegetable, likely to die in the future.

A study interviewed parents who’d suffered this tragedy. In France, the doctors made the decision when to remove life support; in the US, the parents made the decision. How does this affect how the parents heal from the trauma? A year later, the US parents were more likely to express negative emotions than the French ones. American parents were more likely to say “What if?” and to say, “I feel like I’ve played a role in an execution.” When American parents were asked if the doctors should have made the decision, they all said no… despite the fact that making the choice had, in some cases, made them clinically depressed.

American parents couldn’t have given up the choice – it would be contrary to everything they’d learned and been taught about choice.

The story the American dream depends on is the story of limitless choice. It promises freedom, success, happiness and says, “You can have everything.” When you take a close look, you start to see the wholes and many other ways to tell the story. Americans expect to be received with open hearts and minds when they spread their message of choice… but it doesn’t always work that way.

“No single narrative serves the needs of everyone, everywhere. Americans themselves could benefit from incorporating other perspectives into their own narrative, which has been driving their choices for so long.”

We’re invited to engage in translation of these different narratives, to learn from these different accounts. “No matter where you’re from and what the narrative is, we’ve all got the responsibility to open ourselves to what choice can do and what it represents.” This isn’t about moral relativism – it’s about learning what choice can and can’t deliver.

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