The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

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!

Here’s  a link to Iyengar’s  website, and one to a recent profile in the  NYT.

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 her book, “The Art of Choosing” presumably dealt with consumer choice; hadn’t I left the MBA business world precisely *not* to read texts of that sort? But Sheena had attached a trailer for her book in her email, and upon viewing it, I realized that The Art of Choosing was about a  lot more than the Coke versus Pepsi. Here’s the clip that convinced me to say yes to The Art of Choosing.

Iyengar is perhaps best known for her “jam study”, an experiment which proved that there’s such a thing as too much choice. In very simple terms: Humans make better decisions when the number of options is kept to seven or under; confronted with more than seven choices, boredom and fatigue and confusion sets in, making our decisions less than optimal. But the book is about much more than behavioural economics. Iyengar uses examples from medicine, art, music, and even her parents’ marriage to show how humans constantly engage in decision-making. Iyengar, who was born in Toronto to Sikh parents and grew up in New Jersey, 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 visually disabled—are at least as intriguing as her research. (I immediately decided to interview her; the piece will be in Bookslut next month.)

The Art of Choosing emphasises the process of decision-making, and although Iyengar does promise to explain how we can become better (choosier?) choosers, the prescriptive part of the 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. But it’s 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 paying $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!

9 responses to “The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

  1. Hi Niranjana,

    just the book i was looking for a credible review of. i’m not too much of a reader of this genre of books but am a bit of a malcolm gladwell junkie (i love the questions he asks even though I don’t always buy his answers or the processes he arrives at them by) and had found Sheena’s work quoted in Blink pretty fascinating. Though The Art of Choosing is out in India I haven’t run into a review yet.

    so thanks for this and I hope you’ll be posting a link to the interview too.

    Manjul

  2. I had this book on my list anyway, but reading your review makes me want to pick it up right away!

  3. Interesting theme, only I’m not sure I would want decision making demystified!

    I’d rather retain the few mysteries of human behaviour left.

    Or maybe I’m being simplistic about what may be in the book.

    An Iyer reviewing an Iyengar’s book is progress🙂

  4. @ Manjul: Thanks. And yes. I’ll link to interview when it’s out.

    @ Nupur: I hope you’ll blog about it when you do!

    @ Anil: Well, she makes the case that decision-making will always be a bit of a mystery, so you might find the book your thing after all!

  5. I have read a recent review about this book and I believe the reviewer rated it high, but I forget. I like the sound of this book, because that is something I have believed in as well. It would be nice to see some case studies on that.

  6. @ Aths: It’s a great book, very readable, and very cohesive in terms of its science.

    @ Booklover: sounds good.

  7. @ Anu: Nice review!
    I interviewed her and she’s as nice and intelligent and chatty as she seems in the book. My interview will feature here soon btw, so do come back if you’re interested!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s