Americans tend to believe that they've reached a pinnacle in how they practice choice. They think that choice is an innate and universal desire in all humans. Unfortunately, these beliefs are based on assumptions that don't always hold true in many countries and cultures. At times they don't even hold true within America's own borders.
First assumption: If a choice affects you, you should be the one to make it. In America, the primary locus of choice is the individual, regardless of what other people want or recommend. It's called "being true to yourself." But do all individuals benefit from this approach to choice?
Mark Lepper and I did a series of studies to answer this question. In one study, we brought seven- to nine-year-old Anglo- and Asian-American children into the laboratory and divided them into three groups. The first group came in and was greeted by Miss Smith, who showed them six piles of anagram puzzles. The kids got to choose which pile to do. They also got to choose which marker to use. The second group of children came in, but this time Miss Smith told them which anagrams to do and which markers to use. A third group was told that their anagrams and their markers had been chosen by their mothers. In reality, all three groups were given the same activity.
There were striking differences in how well the children performed. Anglo-Americans did two and a half times more anagrams when they got to choose them than when Miss Smith or their mothers made the choice.
In contrast, Asian-American children performed best when they believed their mothers had made the choice. If they had a concept of being true to one's self, then that self, most likely, was composed not of an individual but of a collective. Success was just as much about pleasing key figures as it was about satisfying one's own preferences.
All Gummed Up
The second assumption that informs the American view of choice is that the more choices you have, the more likely you are to make the best choice. But for Eastern Europeans, the sudden availability of all these consumer products in the marketplace after the fall of the Berlin Wall was a deluge. When asked, "What words and images do you associate with choice?" Grzegorz from Warsaw said, "Ah, for me it is fear. There are some dilemmas. I am used to no choice." And Tomasz, a young Polish man, said, "I don't need 20 kinds of chewing gum. I don't mean to say that I want no choice, but many of these choices are quite artificial."
In reality, many choices are between things that are not much different. Though all humans share a basic need and desire for choice, we don't all see choice in the same places or to the same extent. When someone can't see how one choice is unlike another, the process of choosing can be confusing and frustrating. Choice no longer offers opportunities, but imposes constraints.
This brings me to the third, and perhaps most problematic assumption: "You must never say no to choice." To examine this, consider the example of Susan and Daniel Mitchell, a young Chicago couple who were about to have their first baby. They'd already picked out a name for her, Barbara. One night, when Susan was seven months pregnant, she was rushed to the emergency room. The baby was delivered through a C-section, but Barbara suffered a loss of oxygen to the brain. Unable to breathe on her own, she was put on a ventilator. Two days later, the doctors gave the Mitchells a choice. They could either remove Barbara from life support, in which case she would die within hours, or they could keep her on life support, in which case she might still die within days. If she survived, she would remain in a permanent vegetative state. What did they do? What would any parent do?
What We Tell Ourselves
In a study I conducted with Simona Botti and Kristina Orfali, American and French parents who had suffered the same tragedy were interviewed. In all cases, life support was removed and the infants had died. But there was a big difference. In France, doctors decided whether and when the life support would be removed, while in the United States, the final decision rested with the parents. Even up to a year later, American parents were more likely to express negative emotions, as compared to their French counterparts. French parents were more likely to say things like, "Noah was here for so little time, but he taught us so much." But American parents were more likely to say things like, "What if? What if?" One parent said, "I feel as if I've played a role in an execution."
But when the American parents were asked if they would rather have had the doctors make the decision, they all said, "No." They could not imagine turning that choice over to another, even though making that choice made them feel trapped, guilty, angry. To give up choice would have been contrary to everything they had been taught and had come to believe about the power and purpose of choice.
In her essay "The White Album," Joan Didion writes, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ideas with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
The phantasmagoria, the actual experience that we try to understand and organize through narrative, varies from place to place. No single narrative serves the needs of everyone everywhere. Americans could benefit from incorporating new perspectives into their own narrative, which has been driving their choices for so long.