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TEDGlobal 2010

Sheena Iyengar: The art of choosing

July 15, 2010

Sheena Iyengar studies how we make choices -- and how we feel about the choices we make. At TEDGlobal, she talks about both trivial choices (Coke v. Pepsi) and profound ones, and shares her groundbreaking research that has uncovered some surprising attitudes about our decisions.

Sheena Iyengar - Psycho-economist
Sheena Iyengar studies how people choose (and what makes us think we're good at it). Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Today, I'm going to take you
00:22
around the world in 18 minutes.
00:24
My base of operations is in the U.S.,
00:26
but let's start at the other end of the map,
00:29
in Kyoto, Japan,
00:31
where I was living with a Japanese family
00:33
while I was doing part of my dissertational research
00:36
15 years ago.
00:38
I knew even then that I would encounter
00:41
cultural differences and misunderstandings,
00:43
but they popped up when I least expected it.
00:45
On my first day,
00:48
I went to a restaurant,
00:50
and I ordered a cup of green tea with sugar.
00:52
After a pause, the waiter said,
00:54
"One does not put sugar in green tea."
00:56
"I know," I said. "I'm aware of this custom.
01:00
But I really like my tea sweet."
01:02
In response, he gave me an even more courteous version
01:05
of the same explanation.
01:08
"One does not put sugar
01:10
in green tea."
01:12
"I understand," I said,
01:15
"that the Japanese do not put sugar in their green tea,
01:17
but I'd like to put some sugar
01:19
in my green tea."
01:21
(Laughter)
01:23
Surprised by my insistence,
01:25
the waiter took up the issue with the manager.
01:27
Pretty soon,
01:29
a lengthy discussion ensued,
01:31
and finally the manager came over to me and said,
01:33
"I am very sorry. We do not have sugar."
01:36
(Laughter)
01:39
Well, since I couldn't have my tea the way I wanted it,
01:41
I ordered a cup of coffee,
01:44
which the waiter brought over promptly.
01:46
Resting on the saucer
01:48
were two packets of sugar.
01:50
My failure to procure myself
01:53
a cup of sweet, green tea
01:56
was not due to a simple misunderstanding.
01:58
This was due to a fundamental difference
02:01
in our ideas about choice.
02:03
From my American perspective,
02:06
when a paying customer makes a reasonable request
02:08
based on her preferences,
02:10
she has every right to have that request met.
02:12
The American way, to quote Burger King,
02:15
is to "have it your way,"
02:17
because, as Starbucks says,
02:19
"happiness is in your choices."
02:21
(Laughter)
02:23
But from the Japanese perspective,
02:25
it's their duty to protect those who don't know any better --
02:28
(Laughter)
02:31
in this case, the ignorant gaijin --
02:33
from making the wrong choice.
02:35
Let's face it: the way I wanted my tea
02:38
was inappropriate according to cultural standards,
02:40
and they were doing their best to help me save face.
02:43
Americans tend to believe
02:46
that they've reached some sort of pinnacle
02:48
in the way they practice choice.
02:50
They think that choice, as seen through the American lens
02:52
best fulfills an innate and universal
02:55
desire for choice in all humans.
02:57
Unfortunately,
03:00
these beliefs are based on assumptions
03:02
that don't always hold true
03:04
in many countries, in many cultures.
03:06
At times they don't even hold true
03:09
at America's own borders.
03:11
I'd like to discuss some of these assumptions
03:13
and the problems associated with them.
03:15
As I do so, I hope you'll start thinking
03:18
about some of your own assumptions
03:20
and how they were shaped by your backgrounds.
03:22
First assumption:
03:25
if a choice affects you,
03:27
then you should be the one to make it.
03:29
This is the only way to ensure
03:31
that your preferences and interests
03:33
will be most fully accounted for.
03:35
It is essential for success.
03:38
In America, the primary locus of choice
03:41
is the individual.
03:44
People must choose for themselves, sometimes sticking to their guns,
03:46
regardless of what other people want or recommend.
03:49
It's called "being true to yourself."
03:52
But do all individuals benefit
03:55
from taking such an approach to choice?
03:57
Mark Lepper and I did a series of studies
04:00
in which we sought the answer to this very question.
04:02
In one study,
04:05
which we ran in Japantown, San Francisco,
04:07
we brought seven- to nine-year-old Anglo- and Asian-American children
04:10
into the laboratory,
04:13
and we divided them up into three groups.
04:15
The first group came in,
04:17
and they were greeted by Miss Smith,
04:19
who showed them six big piles of anagram puzzles.
04:21
The kids got to choose which pile of anagrams they would like to do,
04:24
and they even got to choose which marker
04:27
they would write their answers with.
04:29
When the second group of children came in,
04:31
they were brought to the same room, shown the same anagrams,
04:33
but this time Miss Smith told them
04:36
which anagrams to do
04:38
and which markers to write their answers with.
04:40
Now when the third group came in,
04:43
they were told that their anagrams and their markers
04:46
had been chosen by their mothers.
04:49
(Laughter)
04:51
In reality,
04:53
the kids who were told what to do,
04:55
whether by Miss Smith or their mothers,
04:57
were actually given the very same activity,
04:59
which their counterparts in the first group
05:01
had freely chosen.
05:03
With this procedure, we were able to ensure
05:05
that the kids across the three groups
05:07
all did the same activity,
05:09
making it easier for us to compare performance.
05:11
Such small differences in the way we administered the activity
05:14
yielded striking differences
05:17
in how well they performed.
05:19
Anglo-Americans,
05:21
they did two and a half times more anagrams
05:23
when they got to choose them,
05:26
as compared to when it was
05:28
chosen for them by Miss Smith or their mothers.
05:30
It didn't matter who did the choosing,
05:33
if the task was dictated by another,
05:36
their performance suffered.
05:38
In fact, some of the kids were visibly embarrassed
05:40
when they were told that their mothers had been consulted.
05:43
(Laughter)
05:46
One girl named Mary said,
05:48
"You asked my mother?"
05:50
(Laughter)
05:53
In contrast,
05:55
Asian-American children
05:57
performed best when they believed
05:59
their mothers had made the choice,
06:01
second best when they chose for themselves,
06:04
and least well when it had been chosen by Miss Smith.
06:07
A girl named Natsumi
06:10
even approached Miss Smith as she was leaving the room
06:12
and tugged on her skirt and asked,
06:14
"Could you please tell my mommy
06:16
I did it just like she said?"
06:18
The first-generation children were strongly influenced
06:22
by their immigrant parents'
06:25
approach to choice.
06:27
For them, choice was not just a way
06:29
of defining and asserting
06:31
their individuality,
06:33
but a way to create community and harmony
06:35
by deferring to the choices
06:37
of people whom they trusted and respected.
06:39
If they had a concept of being true to one's self,
06:42
then that self, most likely,
06:45
[was] composed, not of an individual,
06:47
but of a collective.
06:49
Success was just as much about pleasing key figures
06:51
as it was about satisfying
06:54
one's own preferences.
06:56
Or, you could say that
06:58
the individual's preferences were shaped
07:00
by the preferences of specific others.
07:02
The assumption then that we do best
07:06
when the individual self chooses
07:08
only holds
07:10
when that self
07:12
is clearly divided from others.
07:14
When, in contrast,
07:17
two or more individuals
07:19
see their choices and their outcomes
07:21
as intimately connected,
07:23
then they may amplify one another's success
07:25
by turning choosing
07:28
into a collective act.
07:30
To insist that they choose independently
07:32
might actually compromise
07:35
both their performance
07:37
and their relationships.
07:39
Yet that is exactly what
07:41
the American paradigm demands.
07:43
It leaves little room for interdependence
07:45
or an acknowledgment of individual fallibility.
07:48
It requires that everyone treat choice
07:51
as a private and self-defining act.
07:54
People that have grown up in such a paradigm
07:58
might find it motivating,
08:00
but it is a mistake to assume
08:02
that everyone thrives under the pressure
08:04
of choosing alone.
08:06
The second assumption which informs the American view of choice
08:09
goes something like this.
08:12
The more choices you have,
08:14
the more likely you are
08:16
to make the best choice.
08:18
So bring it on, Walmart, with 100,000 different products,
08:20
and Amazon, with 27 million books
08:23
and Match.com with -- what is it? --
08:26
15 million date possibilities now.
08:28
You will surely find the perfect match.
08:32
Let's test this assumption
08:35
by heading over to Eastern Europe.
08:37
Here, I interviewed people
08:39
who were residents of formerly communist countries,
08:41
who had all faced the challenge
08:44
of transitioning to a more
08:46
democratic and capitalistic society.
08:48
One of the most interesting revelations
08:51
came not from an answer to a question,
08:53
but from a simple gesture of hospitality.
08:55
When the participants arrived for their interview,
08:58
I offered them a set of drinks:
09:01
Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite --
09:03
seven, to be exact.
09:05
During the very first session,
09:07
which was run in Russia,
09:09
one of the participants made a comment
09:11
that really caught me off guard.
09:13
"Oh, but it doesn't matter.
09:16
It's all just soda. That's just one choice."
09:18
(Murmuring)
09:21
I was so struck by this comment that from then on,
09:23
I started to offer all the participants
09:25
those seven sodas,
09:27
and I asked them, "How many choices are these?"
09:29
Again and again,
09:32
they perceived these seven different sodas,
09:34
not as seven choices, but as one choice:
09:37
soda or no soda.
09:40
When I put out juice and water
09:42
in addition to these seven sodas,
09:44
now they perceived it as only three choices --
09:46
juice, water and soda.
09:48
Compare this to the die-hard devotion of many Americans,
09:51
not just to a particular flavor of soda,
09:54
but to a particular brand.
09:57
You know, research shows repeatedly
09:59
that we can't actually tell the difference
10:02
between Coke and Pepsi.
10:04
Of course, you and I know
10:06
that Coke is the better choice.
10:08
(Laughter)
10:10
For modern Americans who are exposed
10:16
to more options and more ads associated with options
10:18
than anyone else in the world,
10:21
choice is just as much about who they are
10:23
as it is about what the product is.
10:25
Combine this with the assumption that more choices are always better,
10:28
and you have a group of people for whom every little difference matters
10:31
and so every choice matters.
10:34
But for Eastern Europeans,
10:36
the sudden availability of all these
10:39
consumer products on the marketplace was a deluge.
10:41
They were flooded with choice
10:44
before they could protest that they didn't know how to swim.
10:46
When asked, "What words and images
10:50
do you associate with choice?"
10:52
Grzegorz from Warsaw said,
10:54
"Ah, for me it is fear.
10:57
There are some dilemmas you see.
10:59
I am used to no choice."
11:01
Bohdan from Kiev said,
11:03
in response to how he felt about
11:05
the new consumer marketplace,
11:07
"It is too much.
11:09
We do not need everything that is there."
11:11
A sociologist from
11:13
the Warsaw Survey Agency explained,
11:15
"The older generation jumped from nothing
11:18
to choice all around them.
11:21
They were never given a chance to learn
11:23
how to react."
11:25
And Tomasz, a young Polish man said,
11:27
"I don't need twenty kinds of chewing gum.
11:30
I don't mean to say that I want no choice,
11:33
but many of these choices are quite artificial."
11:36
In reality, many choices are between things
11:40
that are not that much different.
11:43
The value of choice
11:47
depends on our ability
11:49
to perceive differences
11:51
between the options.
11:53
Americans train their whole lives
11:55
to play "spot the difference."
11:57
They practice this from such an early age
12:00
that they've come to believe that everyone
12:02
must be born with this ability.
12:04
In fact, though all humans share
12:06
a basic need and desire for choice,
12:08
we don't all see choice in the same places
12:11
or to the same extent.
12:14
When someone can't see how one choice
12:16
is unlike another,
12:18
or when there are too many choices to compare and contrast,
12:20
the process of choosing can be
12:23
confusing and frustrating.
12:25
Instead of making better choices,
12:28
we become overwhelmed by choice,
12:30
sometimes even afraid of it.
12:32
Choice no longer offers opportunities,
12:35
but imposes constraints.
12:37
It's not a marker of liberation,
12:39
but of suffocation
12:41
by meaningless minutiae.
12:43
In other words,
12:45
choice can develop into the very opposite
12:47
of everything it represents
12:49
in America
12:51
when it is thrust upon those
12:53
who are insufficiently prepared for it.
12:55
But it is not only other people
12:58
in other places
13:00
that are feeling the pressure
13:02
of ever-increasing choice.
13:04
Americans themselves are discovering
13:06
that unlimited choice
13:08
seems more attractive in theory
13:10
than in practice.
13:12
We all have physical, mental
13:14
and emotional (Laughter) limitations
13:17
that make it impossible for us
13:19
to process every single choice we encounter,
13:21
even in the grocery store,
13:24
let alone over the course of our entire lives.
13:26
A number of my studies have shown
13:29
that when you give people 10 or more options
13:32
when they're making a choice, they make poorer decisions,
13:34
whether it be health care, investment,
13:37
other critical areas.
13:39
Yet still, many of us believe
13:41
that we should make all our own choices
13:43
and seek out even more of them.
13:46
This brings me to the third,
13:49
and perhaps most problematic, assumption:
13:52
"You must never
13:55
say no to choice."
13:57
To examine this, let's go back to the U.S.
14:00
and then hop across the pond to France.
14:02
Right outside Chicago,
14:05
a young couple, Susan and Daniel Mitchell,
14:08
were about to have their first baby.
14:10
They'd already picked out a name for her,
14:13
Barbara, after her grandmother.
14:15
One night, when Susan was seven months pregnant,
14:18
she started to experience contractions
14:21
and was rushed to the emergency room.
14:23
The baby was delivered through a C-section,
14:26
but Barbara suffered cerebral anoxia,
14:29
a loss of oxygen to the brain.
14:31
Unable to breathe on her own,
14:34
she was put on a ventilator.
14:36
Two days later,
14:38
the doctors gave the Mitchells
14:40
a choice:
14:42
They could either remove Barbara
14:44
off the life support,
14:46
in which case she would die within a matter of hours,
14:48
or they could keep her on life support,
14:51
in which case she might still die
14:54
within a matter of days.
14:56
If she survived, she would remain
14:58
in a permanent vegetative state,
15:00
never able to walk, talk
15:03
or interact with others.
15:06
What do they do?
15:09
What do any parent do?
15:11
In a study I conducted
15:17
with Simona Botti and Kristina Orfali,
15:19
American and French parents
15:21
were interviewed.
15:23
They had all suffered
15:25
the same tragedy.
15:27
In all cases, the life support was removed,
15:29
and the infants had died.
15:32
But there was a big difference.
15:34
In France, the doctors decided whether and when
15:36
the life support would be removed,
15:39
while in the United States,
15:42
the final decision rested with the parents.
15:44
We wondered:
15:48
does this have an effect on how the parents
15:50
cope with the loss of their loved one?
15:52
We found that it did.
15:55
Even up to a year later,
15:58
American parents
16:00
were more likely to express negative emotions,
16:02
as compared to their French counterparts.
16:04
French parents were more likely to say things like,
16:07
"Noah was here for so little time,
16:10
but he taught us so much.
16:13
He gave us a new perspective on life."
16:15
American parents were more likely to say things like,
16:19
"What if? What if?"
16:22
Another parent complained,
16:25
"I feel as if they purposefully tortured me.
16:27
How did they get me to do that?"
16:30
And another parent said,
16:33
"I feel as if I've played a role
16:35
in an execution."
16:37
But when the American parents were asked
16:40
if they would rather have had
16:42
the doctors make the decision,
16:44
they all said, "No."
16:47
They could not imagine
16:49
turning that choice over to another,
16:51
even though having made that choice
16:53
made them feel trapped,
16:56
guilty, angry.
16:58
In a number of cases
17:00
they were even clinically depressed.
17:02
These parents could not contemplate
17:05
giving up the choice,
17:07
because to do so would have gone contrary
17:09
to everything they had been taught
17:11
and everything they had come to believe
17:14
about the power
17:16
and purpose of choice.
17:18
In her essay, "The White Album,"
17:21
Joan Didion writes,
17:24
"We tell ourselves stories
17:27
in order to live.
17:29
We interpret what we see,
17:31
select the most workable
17:33
of the multiple choices.
17:35
We live entirely by the imposition
17:37
of a narrative line
17:39
upon disparate images,
17:41
by the idea with which we have learned to freeze
17:43
the shifting phantasmagoria,
17:46
which is our actual experience."
17:48
The story Americans tell,
17:53
the story upon which
17:55
the American dream depends,
17:57
is the story of limitless choice.
17:59
This narrative
18:02
promises so much:
18:04
freedom, happiness,
18:06
success.
18:08
It lays the world at your feet and says,
18:10
"You can have anything, everything."
18:13
It's a great story,
18:17
and it's understandable why they would be reluctant
18:19
to revise it.
18:21
But when you take a close look,
18:24
you start to see the holes,
18:26
and you start to see that the story
18:28
can be told in many other ways.
18:30
Americans have so often tried to
18:33
disseminate their ideas of choice,
18:35
believing that they will be, or ought to be,
18:38
welcomed with open hearts and minds.
18:41
But the history books and the daily news tell us
18:44
it doesn't always work out that way.
18:47
The phantasmagoria,
18:50
the actual experience that we try to understand
18:52
and organize through narrative,
18:54
varies from place to place.
18:57
No single narrative serves the needs
19:00
of everyone everywhere.
19:02
Moreover, Americans themselves
19:06
could benefit from incorporating
19:09
new perspectives into their own narrative,
19:12
which has been driving their choices
19:15
for so long.
19:17
Robert Frost once said that,
19:20
"It is poetry that is lost in translation."
19:23
This suggests that
19:27
whatever is beautiful and moving,
19:29
whatever gives us a new way to see,
19:31
cannot be communicated to those
19:34
who speak a different language.
19:36
But Joseph Brodsky said that,
19:39
"It is poetry
19:41
that is gained in translation,"
19:43
suggesting that translation
19:45
can be a creative,
19:47
transformative act.
19:49
When it comes to choice,
19:52
we have far more to gain than to lose
19:54
by engaging in the many
19:57
translations of the narratives.
20:00
Instead of replacing
20:03
one story with another,
20:05
we can learn from and revel in
20:07
the many versions that exist
20:09
and the many that have yet to be written.
20:12
No matter where we're from
20:15
and what your narrative is,
20:18
we all have a responsibility
20:20
to open ourselves up to a wider array
20:22
of what choice can do,
20:24
and what it can represent.
20:27
And this does not lead to
20:30
a paralyzing moral relativism.
20:32
Rather, it teaches us when
20:35
and how to act.
20:37
It brings us that much closer
20:39
to realizing the full potential of choice,
20:41
to inspiring the hope
20:44
and achieving the freedom
20:46
that choice promises
20:48
but doesn't always deliver.
20:50
If we learn to speak to one another,
20:52
albeit through translation,
20:55
then we can begin to see choice
20:58
in all its strangeness,
21:00
complexity
21:02
and compelling beauty.
21:05
Thank you.
21:07
(Applause)
21:09
Bruno Giussani: Thank you.
21:20
Sheena, there is a detail about your biography
21:23
that we have not written in the program book.
21:26
But by now it's evident to everyone in this room. You're blind.
21:28
And I guess one of the questions on everybody's mind is:
21:31
How does that influence your study of choosing
21:34
because that's an activity
21:37
that for most people is associated with visual inputs
21:39
like aesthetics and color and so on?
21:42
Sheena Iyengar: Well, it's funny that you should ask that
21:46
because one of the things that's interesting about being blind
21:48
is you actually get a different vantage point
21:51
when you observe the way
21:53
sighted people make choices.
21:55
And as you just mentioned, there's lots of choices out there
21:57
that are very visual these days.
21:59
Yeah, I -- as you would expect --
22:01
get pretty frustrated by choices
22:03
like what nail polish to put on
22:05
because I have to rely on what other people suggest.
22:07
And I can't decide.
22:09
And so one time I was in a beauty salon,
22:11
and I was trying to decide between two very light shades of pink.
22:13
And one was called "Ballet Slippers."
22:16
And the other one was called "Adorable."
22:18
(Laughter)
22:21
And so I asked these two ladies,
22:23
and the one lady told me, "Well, you should definitely wear 'Ballet Slippers.'"
22:25
"Well, what does it look like?"
22:27
"Well, it's a very elegant shade of pink."
22:29
"Okay, great."
22:31
The other lady tells me to wear "Adorable."
22:33
"What does it look like?"
22:35
"It's a glamorous shade of pink."
22:37
And so I asked them, "Well, how do I tell them apart?
22:41
What's different about them?"
22:43
And they said, "Well, one is elegant, the other one's glamorous."
22:45
Okay, we got that.
22:47
And the only thing they had consensus on:
22:49
well, if I could see them, I would
22:51
clearly be able to tell them apart.
22:53
(Laughter)
22:55
And what I wondered was whether they were being affected
22:57
by the name or the content of the color,
23:00
so I decided to do a little experiment.
23:02
So I brought these two bottles of nail polish into the laboratory,
23:05
and I stripped the labels off.
23:08
And I brought women into the laboratory,
23:10
and I asked them, "Which one would you pick?"
23:12
50 percent of the women accused me of playing a trick,
23:14
of putting the same color nail polish
23:17
in both those bottles.
23:19
(Laughter)
23:21
(Applause)
23:23
At which point you start to wonder who the trick's really played on.
23:27
Now, of the women that could tell them apart,
23:30
when the labels were off, they picked "Adorable,"
23:33
and when the labels were on,
23:36
they picked "Ballet Slippers."
23:38
So as far as I can tell,
23:41
a rose by any other name
23:43
probably does look different
23:45
and maybe even smells different.
23:47
BG: Thank you. Sheena Iyengar. Thank you Sheena.
23:50
(Applause)
23:53

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Sheena Iyengar - Psycho-economist
Sheena Iyengar studies how people choose (and what makes us think we're good at it).

Why you should listen

We all think we're good at making choices; many of us even enjoy making them. Sheena Iyengar looks deeply at choosing and has discovered many surprising things about it. For instance, her famous "jam study," done while she was a grad student, quantified a counterintuitive truth about decisionmaking -- that when we're presented with too many choices, like 24 varieties of jam, we tend not to choose anything at all. (This and subsequent, equally ingenious experiments have provided rich material for Malcolm Gladwell and other pop chroniclers of business and the human psyche.)

Iyengar's research has been informing business and consumer-goods marketing since the 1990s. But she and her team at the Columbia Business School throw a much broader net. Her analysis touches, for example, on the medical decisionmaking that might lead up to choosing physician-assisted suicide, on the drawbacks of providing too many choices and options in social-welfare programs, and on the cultural and geographical underpinning of choice. Her book The Art of Choosing shares her research in an accessible and charming story that draws examples from her own life.

Watch a Facebook-exclusive short video from Sheena Iyengar: "Ballet Slippers" >>

The original video is available on TED.com
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