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.

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!