WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

Iyengar rose to fame during her doctoral program when she conducted what is now a very well known study in which she set up jam tasting stations in supermarkets. The number of jams on display to taste ranged from 6 to 24 jars. Her research found that when there were more than 7 choices on display, customers were overwhelmed and tended not to purchase any jams.

This book explores some big questions about choice, such as Why is choice powerful, and where does its power come from? Do we all choose in the same way? What is the relationship between how we choose and who we are? Why are we so often disappointed by our choices, and how do we make the most effective use of the tool of choice? How much control do we really have over our everyday choices? How do we choose when our options are practically unlimited? Should we ever let others choose for us, and if yes, who and why?

The book isn’t so much about the specifics of choice, rather some bigger perspectives about how we think about choice (based on our culture and other personal characteristics) and the relationship between choice and wellbeing. The book is as much about human nature as choice.

She, like Schwartz, points out the irony that, while the power of choice lies in its ability to unearth the best option possible out of all those presented, sometimes the desire to choose is so strong that it can interfere with the pursuit of those very benefits. However, she also notes that sometimes, the power of choice is so great that it becomes not merely a means to an end but something intrinsically valuable and necessary.

The book synthesizes research by the author and other well known people like Ekman and Seligman. It includes examples and case studies from the author’s own experience, from academic research, to bioethical dilemmas and popular culture such as The Matrix movie.

Importantly, Iyengar argues that we have the ability to create choice by altering our interpretations of the world, to cultivate learned optimism, adjusting our vision to see that we have control rather than passively suffering the shocks of life. We can give choice to ourselves and others, along with the benefits that accompany choice. A small change in our actions, such as speaking or thinking in a way that highlights our agency, can have a big effect on our mental and physical state.

She concludes with the statement that choosing helps us create our lives. We make choices and are in turn made by them. Science can assist us in becoming more skilful choosers, but at its core, choice remains an art. To gain the most from it, we must embrace uncertainty and contradiction.

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