An Interview with Sheena Iyengar

(This piece appears in the current issue of Bookslut.)

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If Sheena Iyengar’s name seems familiar, it’s probably because you read about her research on consumer choice work in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, now has her own book out. The Art of Choosing deals with choice in all its aspects, across fields as varied as music, art, and medicine, and draws on everything from pop culture to brain imaging technology. Iyengar also mines her personal life for this book, and her choices — to study psychology at Stanford, to marry a man from outside her religion, to use sighted language although she is blind — are at least as fascinating as her research findings.

I interviewed Iyengar via email and telephone. We talked about her writing and her research, and whether an expert on choice might ever toss a coin.

Can you tell us about the conception of, and the motivation behind, this book?

This book looks at three questions: Why do we choose — where does choice get its power from? How do we make choices — what are the various factors that influence how and what we choose? Given all this, how can we choose better?

I’ve written a lot of academic papers, and the only people who read those are academics. As an academic, you almost have an obligation to take your knowledge and disseminate it. So I felt that I should try and write a book for everyone. Of course, the probability of failing when you try to write a book for everyone is the highest. But I figured I should take that risk — otherwise, why write it?

Malcolm Gladwell was the one who encouraged me, and he gave me some very good advice.  He said you really need to tell a story, and use that story to unveil your idea. That works for him, to have each chapter about one story. But I essentially did the opposite, I tried to tell a story about an idea in every chapter. So I was influenced by his advice, but I used it in a different way. But Malcolm writes much much much better [than I do]. I’m amazed at how effortlessly he writes, and if I could write that way, I’d be thrilled.

One of my major a-ha moments after reading this book was the realization that our capacity for self-delusion is infinite. We make poor choices, and then cherry-pick data to further support our (wrong) decisions. Is there truly any hope for us to wise up?

Yes. Ninety percent of the time, we should use reasoned analysis. When we do, though, we still need to really watch out for those decision-making biases that stem from our gut. So, ask yourself, why do I want this? Why am I thinking this way? Did I consider the alternatives? Even when we’re doing a reasoned analysis of the options, our gut emotions can end up playing a role in the process if we’re not careful.

If reasoned analysis works ninety percent of the time, are there occasions when it might actually work to go with our gut?

That’s a great question. Your gut answers the question “How do I feel about this right now?” That’s the only question it answers. It doesn’t answer the question “How am I going to feel about this tomorrow?” That’s its inherent limitation.

Your reason enables you to do the pros and cons analysis. Provided you are not allowing your biases to get involved, your reason answers the question of what you should want, what would be good for you, in the future or even at the present moment. But it doesn’t tell you what would make you happy. The question we want answered, and what we don’t have the tools to answer, is “What would make us happy tomorrow?”

So I suppose you need a third thing here. You have to stop looking inside, and you have to start looking outside. In addition to your gut and your reason, you have to look around and see what other people are doing, see who is happy. And because we’re not as different from other people as we think we are, chances are, we’ll be happy if they are happy. That’s really the three-step process for deciding something important in your life. So if you are trying to decide which job offer to accept, your gut might tell you which one you like, your reason tells you which one you should like, and looking at other people and seeing who is happy in job X, and what it is that they’re happy with — all this will tell you which job will make you happier.

Read the rest of the interview here.

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4 responses to “An Interview with Sheena Iyengar

  1. Interesting! I love the premise and idea of this book and am looking forward to picking up a copy at some point. It was great to read the interview. Thanks for posting it here!

  2. Manjul Bajaj

    thanks,

    great interview. I particularly liked the bit about cultural scripts and inhabiting two worlds as the child of Sikh immigrants in New York –

    ” These two worlds didn’t just comprise two different languages, or two different sets of rules, but offered two entirely different narratives about how to live one’s life. The first emphasized the importance of knowing your duties and fulfilling your responsibilities. The second emphasized the importance of identifying and acting upon your personal preferences.”

    This pretty much sums up whats happening in New Delhi today as the city has spread out to swallow the hinterland. The geographical distance between their village and the city is sometimes only a street away and for the young, living simultaneously in these two cultural narratives, life is throwing up some pretty lethal choices……we get news of honour killings nowadays with alarming frequency as one young couple after another becomes victim to the conflicting narratives in their own lives.

    Manjul

  3. @ Amy: Glad you liked it! And she was born in Canada btw :)

    @ Manjul: I think a big part of Iyengar’s work’s appeal is its versatility–its applicability across fields–and your point illustrates that perfectly.
    I’ve been following the news about (so-called) honor killings with increasing dismay, and your analysis makes the rationale behind this practice much clearer. I wonder where the solution lies–simply waiting for social change doesn’t seem like enough at all.

  4. Jonathan Speke Laudly

    The whole premise of this book is, apparently, that there is an easy distinction between reason and emotion, or intuition and
    ratiocination, or feeling and thought. I don’t share this assumption.
    In addition, there is research that suggests that emotion is
    central to any decision making process at every step.
    As the very old and, I think, wise saying goes: reason is a great servant but a bad master.
    Just because there is some formal reasoning before a decision doesn’t mean that you won’t regret it tomorrow.