The Power of Choice


May|June 2010 contents
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Ed DeSeve WG’71 controls the stimulus package purse-strings

Ethan Lipsitz C’06 leaves his customers in (one-of-a-kind) stitches

John Hanson C’83 and John Milner Ar’64 upgrade Biddle mansion

Sheena Iyengar W’92 C’92
analyzes the art of choosing

Todd Lieberman C’95 pitches his heart out to make movies he loves

Randy Snurr EAS’88 plays around with “molecular Tinkertoys”


Class of ’92 | “I’ve always been fascinated by choice,” says Sheena Iyengar W’92 C’92. “I say I’m not going to do any more studies on choice; I end up doing another study on choice. I can’t help myself.”

Iyengar is an expert on the subject. A tenured professor in the management division of Columbia Business School, her research on the role of choice—in arenas ranging from dating preferences to seeking a job—has been cited in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and National Public Radio, among other media outlets. This past March she published The Art of Choosing (TWELVE), which focuses on how and why people make decisions, whether it’s the person we marry or which jam we buy.

“We make many choices every single day of our lives, some easy, some difficult,” says Iyengar. “How can we make better choices, and reduce the burden of making complicated choices? The Art of Choosing looks at the entire choosing process, from well before one makes a choice to well after.” The book also “challenges readers to examine their own approaches to decision-making and to recognize that the art of choosing may be in trying to create the best experience each time we choose; after all, these experiences are what make up who we are.”

Two aspects of her life contributed to her interest in decision-making: straddling dual cultures in a traditional Sikh family (her parents immigrated to Toronto from New Delhi), and being born with an eye condition that soon left her with 20/400 vision (she was fully blind by the time she reached high school). Both realities spurred her to study how people differ in their expectations engendered by choices and the extent to which choice can be limited or expanded.

Though she earned her PhD in social psychology from Stanford University, it was at Penn that she formally began to study the subject that became her passion.

“My time at Penn really introduced me to the study of choice and has influenced who I am today,” she says, citing Penn psychology professors Jonathan Baron, Martin Seligman Gr’67, and the late John Sabini as setting “me on the path to where I am now.”

In her book she details a study, conducted with Stanford psychology professor Mark Lepper, that offers insight into the paradox of too much choice. The researchers set up tasting booths at a supermarket; one table offered customers 24 flavors of jam to try, while another offered six. Both offered a coupon toward purchasing the product. While more customers visited the table with the larger selection, more of the people who visited the table with fewer jams went to the appropriate aisle in the supermarket and bought a jar of jam.

“It demonstrates the extent to which having choice can lead to benefits, but it’s more nuanced than that,” says Iyengar, adding that in some situations “perhaps having more choice can lead to detrimental outcomes.”

In another study Iyengar offered 20 undergraduates at Columbia a free manicure. Ten of the women were asked to choose between two similar colors of nail polish, which were labeled either Ballet Slippers or Adore-A-Ball. Seven chose the former and described the shade as “darker and richer” than the latter. The other 10 participants were shown the same two colors with no labels. Six chose the unlabeled Adore-A-Ball and said the color was “darker and richer” than the unlabeled Ballet Slippers, which this time was chosen by just two participants. (The other two had no preference.)

“The colors were practically indistinguishable, and yet, especially when they were given names, there was a difference,” Iyengar writes. Those same students “also unanimously preferred the name Ballet Slippers to the name Adore-A-Ball. This is unlikely to be mere coincidence. Rather, it seems that the name somehow made the color look better, or at least created a feeling of difference.”

Usually we think about choice in a “very everyday, local way—‘Did I make the best choice, did I choose rationally, or should I go with my gut?’” she says. “What I’m trying to do with my book is get people to think about the role choice plays in life in a bigger way.”

Fate plays a part, too, according to Iyengar. “To what extent can you direct your own life when you can see only so far and the weather changes quicker than you can say ‘Surprise!’?” she writes. In the book’s prologue, she explains three defining events in her life: how she was born a month early, while her mother was in Toronto but her father hadn’t yet arrived from India; her childhood diagnosis of retinal degeneration; and the unexpected death of her father when she was 13. None of these involved any choice on her part, but instead of seeing events as out of her control, she found it more powerful to view them “in terms of what is still possible and what I could make happen.”

“Any one of us can tell the story of our lives in terms of fate, chance, or choice, but it’s when we tell the story of our lives in terms of choice that we give meaning to what we do and to what we think, because in the end, choice is the only tool we have to move us from what we are today to what we are tomorrow,” she says. “The moment you understand choice you understand your life story. ”

These are not matters of purely academic interest, Iyengar emphasizes:

“I feel like a lot of academics, we write for a lot of journals and that’s fun. But I felt at some point there should be an imperative, almost, to take the research that you spend so much time and energy on, in the service of creating knowledge, and bring it to people.”

Just don’t expect Iyengar to sweat the details of every decision.

“I’m very choosy about when I choose,” she says. “The first question I ask myself is, ‘Is this a choice I want to be making?’ And if I choose to choose I prepare myself for it to be a big project. Most of the time I will choose not to choose. I save the choosing time for the things that are high priority. (Otherwise) you’re depleting too many of your resources that way. If I go out for a date with my husband I let him pick the restaurant.”— Mia Geiger


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Last modified 4/29/10