Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What should I make for dinner? And other impotant decisions

The Art of Choosing Sheena Iyengar
Decision making, to me, is one of the most interesting subjects to study.  How do people choose one college over another?  Or even something as mundane as one pack of gum over another?  How much does culture play a role in decisions?  Or age?  Or life experience?  Does it matter how many choices you have?  

Sheena Iyengar confronts all of these questions in her book, The Art of Choosing in an interesting (though somewhat repetitive) manner, with rich detail on her experiments and a great way of proving her points through personal stories.

One of the first stories she shares is about an experience she had when visiting Japan.  She ordered a green tea and asked for sugar, too.  She was informed that people do not drink green tea with sugar.  She said she understood that, but that she enjoyed it that way and wanted sugar, too.  The server was flummoxed and went to confer with his manager.  They both came back and said that there was no sugar available.  Disappointed, Iyengar ordered a coffee instead.  The server brought her a mug of coffee.  And then gave her some sugar in case she needed it.

What does this experience say about choice?  Well, that Iyengar, raised in the US, believed that she could drink green tea any way she wanted to.  And that her server, raised in Japan, believed that boundaries exist for good reason.  Iyengar uses this story to launch into a very interesting chapter about how culture can impact the ways in which we view choice and its desirability.  She goes through many other parameters, too, and how choice can help or hinder us, make us happier or more confused.

As someone in the marketing field, I couldn't help but think that this information could be dangerous in the hands of people like me.  Iyengar does a lot of consulting work with companies and stores, for example, on how to optimize their product lines and offerings to make people buy more.  And in a way, it's good, right?  It would be nice to walk into a grocery store and see exactly the right number of jam varieties to make you feel like you have a good amount of choice, but not so much that you're overwhelmed and worried that you'll choose poorly.  But at the same time... how much more do these companies know about your own decision-making process than you know yourself?  And how comfortable is that feeling?

This book felt a lot like a series of vignettes on decision-making.  Each chapter, or even sub-chapter, felt almost like a post from a very interesting blog on the specific topic of decision-making.  Once I finished a chapter, I really had no recollection of what I should take away from it or what the key points were.  We just moved onto the next chapter and her next experiment and the slightly different nuances that Iyengar learned in a different context.  It began to feel repetitive because I couldn't differentiate enough between all the points she was presenting.

Iyengar says in her book that most people are comfortable making decisions with up to six options.  I tried to consider this in my own life.  For example, I have a massive TBR pile of books - how do I choose which one to read next?  Maybe I should limit myself to six options and see where I go from there - will I feel more secure in my decision if I have fewer choices?  But how do I first narrow down my huge collection to just six books?  What criteria should I use?  I didn't even know how to start, really.

Same thing with vacations - there are so many places in the world that I want to visit.  Where should I plan my next trip?

And that's where I think Iyengar's book missed an opportunity- there wasn't really anything I could take away to my own life except a general knowledge about decision-making and how complicated it is.  To be fair, I'm not the sort of person who reads advice and then applies it immediately to my life, so I am not sure that if she had provided suggestions that I would have taken her up on them.  But it would have been good to learn about a high-level funneling process that I could internalize and use in my own life.

13 comments:

  1. I should probably read this. I am one of those people who will stare at the jam shelf for 20 mins trying to decide what to buy!

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    1. So many of the flavors sound so good!

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  2. What's even the problem? Pita Inn!!! LOLOL

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    1. Good point! I will keep that in mind in future :-)

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  3. I read this & liked it but also wondered about it in relation to marketing & consumerism!

    I do try to limit my choices...in reading/TBR it's limited by what books I currently have out from the library and for travel, this year at least I decided to first pick a continent & then pick a country. But of course, I have theoretically almost infinite books I *could* request from the library at any one time: I'm not sure how I end up w the holds I do! hehe

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    1. Yes, it is easier to pick a continent and then a country (speaking of which, are you going to India?!). Or a "theme" and then a place (for example, national parks --> Glacier). But I feel like that assumes you already make one step when it's the initial decisions that are the hard ones. In this case, the jam decision was taken out of the consumer's hands and put into the hands of the retailer, but the retailer had to make the decision using a lot of data, I bet, not just going on gut.

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    2. Not this year! Ecuador. :) I thought I'd start closer to home, see how things go w my health. Might go to India next year though!

      Yes re: retailer using info rather than gut. I read an article last year about how Target tracks consumer purchases & targets sales fliers to them. Intense.

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  4. I absolutely believe this. I've heard appliance stores with less choices (like Costco) sell more because it's not so overwhelming. I just bought a new couch last year and it was absolute agony. We also bought a new car and that took us less than an hour to decide because we knew what manufacturer, we just had to decide between which three models and choose the one on the lot that had the options we wanted.

    Just yesterday I was looking for a new read and I have more than 200 books on the TBR shelves. It was nerve-wracking! I'll have to keep the six choices rule in mind, I think it will make life easier!

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    1. Yes, I know just want you mean! I want to change the paint colors in my house now and the options are just endless - I have no idea what I should do! Whereas for a dishwasher, I know at least the dimensions and my price range, so that makes it significantly easier.

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  5. I read several articles about Iyengar's research into decision-making when this book came out. I love knowing that more options is not necessarily better, since I tend to prefer to have a decision made than to endlessly inspect all the available options.

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  6. Just six options in your TBR pile? No no I could never do that

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  7. This sounds really interesting, although I do hate when non-fiction books become all repetitive. I'd be quite interested to know how decision making works when people from the same culture (well, same HOUSE, even) have completely different styles- my sister is the absolute WORST about making decisions for herself, whereas I'm more like 'yeah, I'll just do that' without tons of thought. Very interesting stuff!

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  8. I've heard mostly good things about this book but also that it doesn't really give you many takeaways. It would be interesting to know what marketing thinks of before trying to sell a product. I will have to check this one out.

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