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.