March 26, 2010

The Art of Choosing

In her new book, Sheena Iyengar offers strategies for managing choices in an era of seemingly boundless options.


You are a social scientist by training, so why the art of choosing instead of the science of choosing?

The science of studying choice helps us figure out how to align the odds — how to maximize the objective characteristics of what we’re choosing between.

The art of choosing is not about maximizing objective criteria. It’s about figuring out what is going to make us happy. There’s no science that can tell us that.

What’s the most important thing for those in leadership roles to understand about the art of choosing?

In the first chapter I cite a British study that looked at the health of employees of different ranks. It’s interesting: you might think that CEOs were the most stressed out given all the responsibility that falls on them, but even after the researchers accounted for differences in factors like weight and smoking, overall CEOs were better off than doormen, physically.

The researchers ultimately found that the poorer health outcomes of those lower in the organizational hierarchy had a lot to do with their perception of how much choice they had in their on-the-job decisions: the people who had less control over their work had higher blood pressure during work hours.

That doesn’t always mean you give people choices. People have very different expectations about the way they exercise control or express control, depending on their cultural upbringing. What it does suggest is that what is really important to people is the perception of having choice.

What are some of the different ways that control and choice play out?

For some people control might be “I got to choose everything,” while for others it might be “I got directed,” or they had a helping hand to guide them — that’s the way they associate feeling in control. Either mindset can be empowering, but a manager has to understand that while everybody wants control, the way that it gets expressed varies as a function of culture.

One of things I try to do early in the book is give people a compelling sense that we need to understand where people are coming from. In a study I did with my graduate school adviser, Mark Lepper, we found that Anglo-American children did better work and worked longer when they were given choices about their work. In contrast, Asian-American children did better when they believed their mother had chosen their assigned tasks for them. Another study showed that when Anglo-American children had choices about how to complete a math assignment, their performance jumped by almost 20 percent, but by zero percent when their classmates or strangers made those decisions for them. Asian-American children showed some improvement when they made their own choices but did their best work when their classmates made the decision for them. They showed no improvement when strangers made their choices for them.

The growing reality is that globalization puts us to work in a culturally diverse environment. Cultural diversity doesn’t mean we all just eat different foods or wear different clothes or watch different TV shows. Those are in fact, perhaps, the less important and less interesting differences. What’s more important and more interesting is understanding how our core values and motivations differ.

What has been the most unexpected or most surprising of all the research you’ve conducted on choice?

I don’t know if I ever did a study that I predicted accurately. I’m constantly surprised. I think the real question to ask is, was there a study that didn’t surprise me? I don’t think there was one.

Much of your work has illuminated the ways in which choices can overwhelm us or even make us unhappy. You touch on ways that both experts and creative types manage choices in their work. What can the rest of us learn from these types about getting control when faced with too many choices?

Experts combine the best aspects of intuition and experience to filter out information that isn’t germane or is somehow biased. Experts aren’t perfect, of course, but they have a better recognition of what they know and what they don’t know. That recognition enables them to zero in on the most salient details at hand and filter out the noise. We can’t become experts on everything, but we can make the effort to learn more about those things that are most important to us or most common and that we enjoy.

I also try to show how choosing is a creative process, how we create our environment and ourselves through the choices we make. We are so used to having so much material, so many choices, and we are so used to preserving our choices that we don’t question whether or not we really need those choices — or if they are really benefitting us.

But we know that when you give people more material to work with, they are less creative. Inventors and artists understand how working within a set of rules or with only a few materials can give them the freedom and the ability to create.

When we engage in the exercise of choosing there are inherent limitations to what our abilities are. The more we lack awareness of or tools for dealing with our limitations, the more overwhelmed we become. The more we’re aware of our limitations, the better we’ll be able to tackle those challenges. Art makes the science of maximization less overwhelming.

The science of decision making is vast. How do you limit which avenues you choose to study?

I think a rule that my doctoral adviser gave me has stood up: when you have a research idea, don’t latch on to it the first time it comes back, or even the second time. When the idea comes back a third time, pursue it. I’ve found that I’ve used that guideline: I get a lot of ideas, but an idea or a question that is truly significant will keep coming back.

Sheena Iyengar is the S. T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division and research director and senior scholar at the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business at Columbia Business School.

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Sheena Iyengar

"The Art of Choosing"

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