Decisions, Decisions: The Culture and Psychology of Choice

Decisions, Decisions: The Culture and Psychology of Choice

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Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am.” But in America we might say instead, “I choose, therefore I am.” The holidays are all about choosing the right present. From a sandwich to Medicare Part D, we are forever trying to choose the right option. But in a country as diverse as America, does choice mean the same thing for everyone? Do Asian Americans choose the same way as Caucasians? Sheena Iyengar is a professor of business at Columbia University and the author of the book The Art of Choosing. She spoke to Sandip Roy on the radio program New America Now.

You did an experiment in an elementary school in San Francisco of Asian-American children and Anglo-American children. What was the impetus of the study?

When I was Ph D student, I was studying Japanese. So I went to Japan for a couple of years. A strange thing happened to me on my first night. When I ordered this cup of green tea, the waiter brought it over and I asked for some sugar. The waiter said politely we don’t put sugar in our green tea. I said, “I understand in Japan you are not supposed to put sugar in your green tea. But I am an American—could you forgive me and let me have some?” The waiter hesitated and I insisted. Then the waiter went and talked to the manager. Finally the manager comes and says “Sorry, we don’t have sugar.” I said OK, I’ll order a cup of coffee.

And I get the cup of coffee and on the saucer are sitting two packets of sugar! At first I am outraged. He is violating my rights as a customer. But in Japan they were protecting me from committing the ultimate faux pas— drinking my tea incorrectly. That was my way of understanding that choice has very different scripts in different cultures.

In your experiment you divided the kids into three groups. The first group is given the freedom to choose their puzzle and the color of their marker. The second group is shown all the puzzles and markers but told, “You need to work on the animal puzzle but use the blue marker.” And the third group is told, “We asked your mothers earlier, and your mothers want you to work on the animal puzzle and the blue marker.” What did you find?

For the American kids, they performed the best when they got to choose. Some of these kids were outraged when they were told that we asked their mothers. By contrast, the Asian kids performed best when it was for their mother, next when they chose for themselves and just as badly when [the instructions came from] the experimenter who they had never met. Here again, for the American, the choice was all about who I am and what I want and nobody else can answer that question for me. For Asians, having their mothers choose for them was really comforting. It built confidence that the correct choice was made.

If the Asian kids were more “mommy” and the American kids were more “me,” where do other groups like blacks and Latinos fall in the mommy-me spectrum?

We know from other studies that Latinos are in between Asians and Americans in that they do value relationships, but not as strongly as Asians. African Americans, interestingly enough, are very similar to Anglo Americans, at least in their desire for choice and their reactions to choice.

Then you did an experiment with American and Japanese students in Kyoto. Did changing the location and age change how choice was regarded?

We asked people to jot down all the choices they made today. If you look at Japanese and American students who had the same exact classes, the Americans list four times more choice in a day than the Japanese. So the Americans think the fact that they woke up when the alarm clock went off is a choice, brushing their teeth is a choice. For the Japanese, [those actions are] a script that they have to follow. The bar is much higher. [Choice] has to be what I wear to a party, to some extent whom they marry.

It’s not just about how choice is regarded from culture to culture—does culture affect what we regard as choice in the first place?

Absolutely. I give you a set of 10 sodas. Do you see that as one choice or 10 choices? That varies tremendously as a function of your culture. Asians wouldn’t see that as a choice, because they are wondering what is the host expecting me to choose. Americans see that as 10 choices. Members of ex-communist countries see that as one choice: soda. They see the differences between the brands as utterly meaningless.

Your parents were second cousins. You and your sister are both blind from a genetic condition. Did that make your parents regret the choice of an arranged marriage between cousins?

I don’t think so. I think they just saw that as their fate. My mom always said, “What did I do in my last life? What did your father do in his last life? Something must have gone wrong.” I don’t think she ever pinned the blame on the choice of the spouse.

But after your father died when you were very young, your mother chose to live on [in the United States] with your sister and you.

After my parents realized I was blind and my sister was blind, they understood they could not go back to India. My father really wanted to go back. But they understood we would have a better chance at life here. My parents were traditional Sikhs, but one thing they did bring with them was this notion of choice being a golden thing. And this was the land of choice.

Sikhism comes with a lot of rules. Did that change your idea of choice?

Because I was going back and forth between American culture and Sikh culture, there was constant struggle between whether you are supposed to think of your choices in terms of duty fulfillment or personal preference fulfillment. Do I put my hair the way my friends are telling me to do or do I keep my hair long?

Are you saying where you live mitigates the effect of culture when it comes to choice? You did not choose an arranged marriage.

That is true. But I did consciously choose to marry an Indian. That was a conscious choice because I felt that if I married an American, my entire life would continue to be two cultures in conflict all the time.

In America, we put choice on a pedestal. You did a famous jam study in Palo Alto. What did you find?

We did a study in Draeger’s grocery store. We set up a tasting booth, where we put out six different flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam. We looked at two things. In which case are more customers likely to stop and sample some jam? In fact, 60 percent stopped when there were 24 and 40 percent stopped when there were six.

Then we looked at in which case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam. This is where the results turn out to be the opposite of what we think. Of the people who stopped for the 24 jams, only 3 percent bought a jar. Of the people who stopped when there were six jams on display, 30 percent bought a jar. If you do the math, people were six times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they saw six than if they saw 24.

If you overlaid ethnicity, would the results vary?

We have been looking at that. If you go to India and pick sari shopping, the ladies have hundreds of choices. Yet Indian women don’t seem to get overwhelmed. What’s happening is that they often shop in groups. They don’t perceive the choice in terms of personal fulfillment. They perceive it as finding the correct choice, the one that won’t violate social norms. So the moment one woman shakes her head no, the next sari comes [out]. They allow a collective choosing to winnow down the options to a small subset. And the woman who is going to buy the sari is comfortable having other women advise her.

On the other hand, when you look at Indians choosing ice creams at Baskin Robbins, they are just as perplexed as Americans would be. That’s why 50 percent of Americans eat plain vanilla, strawberry or chocolate.

Is there a magic number that our brains are equipped to handle when it comes to choice?

In terms of new things you have to keep track of, it’s about seven, plus or minus two.

You also looked at religion and choice. Here you looked at how happy do choices make you. How did that play out?

I was raised a Sikh. I get to college and thought I was free. I cut my hair. And I was taking this course with [famed psychologist and optimism expert] Martin Seligman about learned helplessness, and I thought, “That is exactly what religion does. It makes you helpless.” So I told him, “Wouldn’t people of more fundamentalist faiths become more depressed because they have so many more rules imposed upon them and so much less choice and control over their lives?” So we surveyed people from nine different religions —from fundamentalist faiths to liberal ones.

We found, in fact, that the liberals were more likely to become depressed. We found that the liberals were more pessimistic about the future of their lives. That showed me for the first time was that constraints on choice could give people a feeling of more control over their lives.

Did it make you embrace your faith more fervently?

No— religion only works if you buy into it.

Does not being able to see sometimes you make you feel free from the tyranny of choice?

That’s a hard question. Because I wasn’t sighted, that in a way made making a choice much easier. If I want to pursue a choice, it has to be something I am really dedicated to, that I am willing to pursue with great effort. It’s not something I can afford to do on a whim.

When you applied to go to Wharton graduate school of business and you had to write about who you would like to have dinner with, you chose Scarlett O’Hara. Why her?

I really liked the fact that Scarlett O’Hara had a lot of chutzpah. She made a lot of mistakes in her life, but she always kept going. That is the power of choice. It’s the ultimate tool, in fact the only tool, that allows us to go from who we are today to who we want to be tomorrow.