Friday, May 28, 2010

Sheena S. Iyengar's "The Art of Choosing"

Sheena Iyengar's innovative 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 the University of Pennsylvania, the Wharton School of Business, and Stanford University. She is the S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia University and a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award. Her work is regularly cited in such periodicals 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.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Art of Choosing, and reported the following:
The Art of Choosing is, of course, a book about choice, and one of its most important messages is that choice is more complex and multi-faceted than most of us realize. Every action we take in our lives can be considered a choice, and the choices we make today shape the choices we’ll have tomorrow. It would have been impossible to cover all aspects of choice in a single book, so I focused on exploring the questions that I found most thought provoking and most relevant to how we live. Why do we desire choice? How do we make our choices, and why do we sometimes choose against our own interests? What can we do in order to make better choices?

Since having a lot of choice can be overwhelming, I’m glad the “page 99 test” has saved me from having to choose which part of my book I should describe here. Page 99 in The Art of Choosing falls in the middle of a chapter on the role choice plays in helping us express and even create our identities. From a young age we learn to see the world around us through the lens of personal preference, and by understanding our preferences we make sense of ourselves and create a coherent picture of who we are.

However, though we may think of choice as an individual act, a way to distinguish ourselves, we do not choose alone. By this I mean that choice is a form of communication. Like body language, we generate it —sometimes consciously and sometimes not—and it sends messages to others. This can lead to a dilemma if, as our preferences change naturally over time, we begin to worry about sending mixed messages. We may feel torn between making new choices today and remaining consistent with the choices we made in the past, as I explain on page 99:
To behave in a way not in keeping with the identity that others have grown to recognize and love is to become unknowable or trustworthy. On the other hand, the world is an ever-changing place, and in being too consistent we risk becoming inflexible and out of touch. One high-profile example of this tension popped up in the 2004 presidential campaign. John Kerry’s candidacy was damaged by accusations of flip-floppery, whereas George W. Bush was admired by many for sticking to his guns. Once in office, though, Bush was criticized for parroting certain mantras with little regard for “the realities on the ground.” In his roast of the president at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, humorist Stephen Colbert “praised” Bush by saying, “The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday—no matter what happened Tuesday.” It seems that you’re damned if you do change, and damned if you don’t. That’s what makes it so difficult to find the proper balance between consistency and flexibility.

One common, if perhaps not ideal, response to this dilemma can be seen in a study I conducted in collaboration with Rachel Wells, one of my doctoral students. We tracked hundreds of graduating college seniors as they went about looking for their first serious job, a major choice that would significantly affect their subsequent experiences and identity. As part of that study, we asked them to describe what they were looking for in their ideal job on three separate occasions over the six to nine month period it took them to go from initial search to successful employment. Each time, we asked them to rank the same 13 attributes of a job, including “high income,” “opportunity for advancement,” “job security,” “opportunity for creativity,” and “freedom to make decisions,” from most to least important. We looked only at new graduates, but all people, no matter where they are in their career, have to make trade-offs by considering these very attributes. Is it more important to have a job that’s personally fulfilling or one that lets you better provide for your family? Is it worth sacrificing job security for the chance to strike it rich?
We found that the students steadily changed their preferences over the months, becoming more pragmatic as they came closer to making a final decision, but this wasn’t the most interesting part. It turned out that the people who were happiest with their new jobs were also the people who didn’t realize that this shift in preference had occurred. They misremembered the past, believing that what they wanted now was what they had always wanted. Thus they were able to both satisfy their current preferences and maintain a narrative of consistency. In other words, to be happy with our choices, sometimes we may need to lie to ourselves.
Read an excerpt from The Art of Choosing, and learn more about the book and author at The Art of Choosing website.

See-Sheena Iyengar's six best books.

--Marshal Zeringue