The Art of Choosing (TED talk)

Sheena Iyengar

My failure to procure myself a cup of sweet, green tea was not due to a simple misunderstanding. This was due to a fundamental difference in our ideas about choice.

[Americans believe that there is] an innate and universal desire for choice in all humans. Unfortunately, these beliefs are based on assumptions that don’t always hold true in many countries, in many cultures. I’d like to discuss some of these assumptions and the problems associated with them. As I do so, I hope you’ll start thinking about some of your own assumptions and how they were shaped by your backgrounds.

First assumption: if a choice affects you, then you should be the one to make it. This is the only way to ensure that your preferences and interests will be most fully accounted for. It is essential for success. In America, the primary locus of choice is the individual. People must choose for themselves, sometimes sticking to their guns, regardless of what other people want or recommend. It’s called “being true to yourself.” But do all individuals benefit from taking such an approach to choice?

[In the experiment], the kids who were told what to do, whether by Miss Smith or their mothers, were actually given the very same activity, which their counterparts in the first group had freely chosen. Anglo-Americans, they did two and a half times more anagrams when they got to choose them, as compared to when it was chosen for them by Miss Smith or their mothers. It didn’t matter who did the choosing, if the task was dictated by another, their performance suffered. In contrast, Asian-American children performed best when they believed their mothers had made the choice, second best when they chose for themselves, and least well when it had been chosen by Miss Smith.

The first-generation children were strongly influenced by their immigrant parents’ approach to choice. For them, choice was not just a way of defining and asserting their individuality, but a way to create community and harmony by deferring to the choices of people whom they trusted and respected. 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. Or, you could say that the individual’s preferences were shaped by the preferences of specific others.

The assumption then that we do best when the individual self chooses only holds when that self is clearly divided from others. When, in contrast, two or more individuals see their choices and their outcomes as intimately connected, then they may amplify one another’s success by turning choosing into a collective act. To insist that they choose independently, might actually compromise both their performance and their relationships.

Yet that is exactly what the American paradigm demands. It leaves little room for interdependence or an acknowledgment of individual fallibility. It requires that everyone treat choice as a private and self-defining act. People that have grown up in such a paradigm might find it motivating. But it is a mistake to assume that everyone thrives under the pressure of choosing alone.

The second assumption which informs the American view of choice goes something like this. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to make the best choice.

For modern Americans who are exposed to more options and more ads associated with options than anyone else in the world, choice is just as much about who they are as it is about what the product is. Combine this with the assumption that more choices are always better, and you have a group of people for whom every little difference matters and so every choice matters. But for Eastern Europeans, the sudden availability of all these consumer products on the marketplace was a deluge. They were flooded with choice before they could protest that they didn’t know how to swim.

In reality, many choices are between things that are not that much different. The value of choice depends on our ability to perceive differences between the options. Americans train their whole lives to play “spot the difference.” They practice this from such an early age that they’ve come to believe that everyone must be born with this ability. In fact, 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, or when there are too many choices to compare and contrast, the process of choosing can be confusing and frustrating. Instead of making better choices, we become overwhelmed by choice, sometimes even afraid of it. Choice no longer offers opportunities, but imposes constraints. It’s not a marker of liberation, but of suffocation by meaningless minutiae.

A number of my studies have shown that when you give people 10 or more options when they’re making a choice, they make poorer decisions, whether it be health care, investment, other critical areas. Yet still, many of us believe that we should make all our own choices and seek out even more of them.

This brings me to the third, and perhaps most problematic assumption: “You must never say no to choice.” In a study I conducted with Simona Botti and Kristina Orfali, American and French parents were interviewed. They had all suffered the same tragedy. In all cases, the life support was removed, and the infants had died. But there was a big difference. In France, the doctors decided whether and when the life support would be removed, while in the United States, the final decision rested with the parents. We wondered: does this have an effect on how the parents cope with the loss of their loved one? We found that it did. 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. He gave us a new perspective on life.” American parents were more likely to say things like, “What if? What if?”

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 having made that choice made them feel trapped, guilty, angry. In a number of cases they were even clinically depressed. These parents could not contemplate giving up the choice, because to do so would have gone contrary to everything they had been taught and everything they had come to believe about the power and purpose of choice.

In regards to aikido practice, the student’s sensibilities around choice affect their relationship with the teacher, their interactions with others during a practice session, and their perspective relative to the methods and tradition.

An American student is likely to have a lower threshold for being told what to do. They’ll notice more quickly any feeling of lack of choice, which might be framed as oppression and bossiness. For some, the unpleasantness of this feeling will lead to their quitting the practice. They are used to having the choices and feeling the “roominess” from all the variety. The feeling of choice likely extends to temporal choices i.e., having a choice at any time. So an American student may have a harder time accepting commitment and the idea of not being able to back out when they want.

Some people have a particular idea, whether they acknowledge it or not, about what kind of hardship they will accept, particularly from other people.  So, while they may state that they want guidance and discipline from a teacher or a practice, their threshold for when this guidance or discipline doesn’t agree with them is likely to be low. They’ll begin to question its basis, its degree, its origin (e.g., the teacher’s intention, the tradition it came from). In a practical sense, discipline as encouraged or enforced from the outside is precisely the thing that’s needed when you yourself feel like you want out or want to stop.

Being with others in the endeavor can keep you in the practice when things get tough. But the group can also provide a justification for you quitting e.g., you realize that you’re not one of the group after all, that they’re different from you. A person in an individualistic culture is likely to be more sensitive and have more conscious opinions on group conformity. If the group one is in is doing something that is somewhat uncomfortable, an individualist will have lower tolerance to do as the others are doing without having some acceptable rationale. Of course leaving is one option, but it’s also common to stay but while unconsciously searching for the group culture’s “loopholes” i.e., the ways in which they can behave free from the obedience and according to their own sense of freedom and choice, while avoiding any excessive pushback from the group to conform.

One of the other possible social factors is having someone tell you what to do, guiding you through the practice. This is why people hire personal trainers and coaches. But there is likely a tenuous balance for Americans: they want their coach to do the motivating and “reaching out”; it’s the coach’s job to “get” them – they themselves will have an “out” in that they can discontinue the coaching if it doesn’t feel right or good. In the case of an aikido teacher (or psychotherapist), the job of “coach” is inherently about bringing the person in contact with irrational and unpleasant experiences. Even if it’s as innocuous as the teacher simply providing such opportunities, the student may quit due to there not being enough encouraging and pleasant opportunities.

One of the benefits from any practice of discipline is derived from persevering even when things get difficult or unfamiliar. Some practices are done completely alone while others are done in groups. If you do such a practice alone, then your commitment is to yourself and your own future benefit. If you seek to do such a practice in a group, your commitment would still be to yourself ultimately, but the presence of the group can work in different ways.

The assumptions that we hold without realizing. The last example, in which the American parents were asked if they would have given up the choice to discontinue life support for their child, even that degree of pain they expressed did not lead them to consider the alternative, which was to give up the choice to another. That is, they could not even imagine that they might feel and experience differently if the choice was made by another person. In one sense, this is about recognizing the ways in which you are bound and unfree. In another sense, this is about a feeling of entitlement. What if the American parents had been told that they couldn’t make the choice, e.g., they were in a foreign hospital?

In fact, I think that many Americans’ thought process would not even go so far as considering the notion that obedience, oppression, etc. is the only or best way to achieve the result that they wanted in the first place by starting aikido. They would want to achieve the result in a way that is familiar and acceptable. As with anyone from any culture, they would not necessarily know why they felt something was acceptable or comfortable; or, they might be able to say why, but only as a rote, culturally dictated explanation. But someone from an individualistic culture may have a stronger tendency to avoid change and opt to do something acceptable and familiar. In a discipline practice, the easy or convenient way might be the exact way to avoid the very challenges that one should face to become a bigger person – that is exactly what they seem easy and convenient.

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