Update: My interview with Iyengar is up on July’s Bookslut.
When Sheena Iyengar emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing her new book, I almost said no. Iyengar is a professor at Columbia Business School, and The Art of Choosing presumably dealt with consumer choice; hadn’t I left the MBA business world precisely *not* to read texts of this kind? But Sheena had attached a link to her book’s trailer, and on viewing it, I realized the book dealt with a lot more than choosing Coke versus Pepsi. Here’s the (very slick, but don’t hold that against it) clip that made me read this book.
Iyengar is perhaps best known for her “jam study”, a ground-breaking experiment which proved that there’s such a thing as too much choice. In very simple terms: we make better decisions when the number of options is limited; our decisions are less optimal when we are confronted with a number of choices. Here’s a clip explaining the study, if you are really interested.
(The first 2 minutes of the clip describe the study.)
The Art of Choosing, while encompassing Iyengar’s earlier research, deals with a lot more than behavioral economics. Iyengar uses examples from medicine, art, music, and even her parents’ marriage to show how we constantly engage (often unawares) in decision-making, and indeed, how such decision-making defines and is defined by us. Iyengar, who was born in Canada to Sikh parents and who grew up in the Unites States, mines her personal life for her research, and what a rich seam it is. Her life choices– to study psychology at Stanford, to marry a man outside her religion, to use sighted language (words such as “see” and “view”) in her writing although she is blind, to name but a few—are at least as intriguing as her work. After reading this book, I knew I had to interview her, and that piece will appear in Bookslut next month.
Iyengar promises that she will help us become better (choosier?) choosers, but the prescriptive part of this book is sketchy at best. The latter is perhaps a necessity; Iyengar makes the case that decision-making is an art, rather than a science. “[Choice] does not look the same to all eyes”… “we cannot take full measure of it.” If you’re looking for a quick-fix solution to better decision-making (assuming such a thing can exist), this book isn’t for you. What it is, though, is a fast-paced, juicy read, packed with lots of a-ha moments, bubbling over with dinner-party conversation pieces, not to mention scathing denouncements of the Great Hoax, aka Branding. If you believe that choosing to pay $37 for Lancome Magique Matte soft-Matte Perfecting Mousse Makeup somehow makes you cooler than picking up a $8.99 Maybelline New York Dream Matte Mousse Foundation: READ THIS BOOK NOW!