Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

Max Born once made a famous remark: “I think chance is a more fundamental conception than causality”. Taking that cue along after reading this book, I think “choice is a more fundamental concept than constraint!”

If you are expecting specific research insights from the author’s work, perhaps this is not the book. Most of the experiments (like Jam tasting etc.) are familiar ones. But the stories are well articulated. Her prologue about her own immigrant life with poor eye sight bordering blindness turns out to be a serious start. Her last chapter is about her marriage wherein her experience with a famous astrologer is indeed engaging. Overall, this book defies any attempt to summarize it. Still, let me persist and come up with a few points.

We all have a buffet mentality” she firmly declares and so argues that choices are critical. (By the way, Mr. Buffet always goes for A la carte when it comes to picking stocks. J) In her view, there is an optimal level in terms of the number of choices beyond which any additional choices available is nearly of no consequence and in fact add to our woes. Decision making then, becomes more complicated than it needs to be.

She quotes Mathematician Henri PoincarĂ©: “Invention consists in avoiding the construction of useless combinations and in constructing useful combinations. To invent is to discern, to choose”. She does propose a nice corollary based on that: “To choose is to invent”. Trouble with such a simple dictum is that it takes a PoincarĂ©, arguably one of the best mathematicians of the century, to reject useless combinations. Nice try anyway.

We have biases to support our biases” she asserts. It reminds me of Groucho Marx quip “Here are my principles. If you don’t like them here is another”. After all, it is essential to simplify the world around us so that we can make sense out of it and get along with life - biases are here to stay. They rapidly reduce the cognitive overhead for us. She gives interview process and other examples where biases come in the way –very insightful.

We know how much one can miss the mark predicting how other people would react given a set of circumstances. A sample story presented is refreshing since it was not a pre-designed experiment: A male student of the author was visiting India with a female friend of his, with whom he had romantic interest. However, she was not reciprocating. He decided to take the matter into his own hands. He decided that a thrill ride through Delhi in a fast and dangerous auto rickshaw was just the thing to get the blood pumping. The plan was near perfect. He waved for an auto driven by a large, loud man in a turban. He gave him the directions which led to narrow, noisy and curved streets. His friend held on tightly, her eyes wide and hair loosened by the wind. When they finally came to a stop, she stumbled out and smoothed down her clothes. “Well”, he said rather pleased with himself, “how was that?” She leaned close, looked him in the eye, and said, “Wasn’t that rickshaw driver just gorgeous?”

She talks about priming and framing with good examples. As to framing, most of us know that we rarely change the question we are asked. That is once the question is framed or given to us, we try to answer the question rather than question the question itself. As to priming, her point is worth a recap: The effectiveness of priming lays in its subtlety not its strength. It affects our choices at the margins rather than causing us to act against our strongly held beliefs. A prime may influence whether you drink Pepsi or Coke but prime alone would never make you sell your belongings and spend your life in a monastery in Himalayas.

You will think a while for some time about the “puffery” in packaged drinking water industry. Puffery means making claims that ordinary people do not take seriously. For example, “Best”, “Revolutionary”, “Latest”, “Gourmet” and other such buzzwords fall into this category. I was shocked to learn that bottled water customers pay 1000 times more per-gallon than they do for tap water. She cites few experiments where in blind tests the packaged water was no better than the humble tap water. It is clear at least in this industry, people have taken the puffery seriously.

“To appreciate the value of shade, you need hot sunlight” says one Tamil proverb. How true? You need limitations to appreciate the value of choices. Let me end with a serious observation from I-Ching:

“Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man. If they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, man’s life needs limitation ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual attains significance as a free spirit surrounding himself within the limitations and determining himself what his duty is”.

Thanks for reading this far….