The Art of Choosing

artofchoosingSheena Iyengar has written the Art of Choosing. It is a slightly different slant on the “choosing” books. These books are different, but they all tell us that the world gives us what turn out to be not genuine choices, and a discussion of how our own brains can do strange things with choices. They also are about personal choice and not really judgment. (I need to learn much more to understand that distinction. I may be making it up.)  This goes also for the Myth of Choice and the Paradox of Choice.

Iyengar begins with Michael Marmot’s Whitehall Studies which found that government workers in higher pay grades were much less likely to suffer from heart disease than those in lower pay grades even after adjusting for other known risk factors. As it turned out, the chief reason for these results was that pay level directly correlated with the degree of control employees felt they had over their work. What affected people’s health most in these situations was the perceived level of control that people had in their jobs. So we all want choice. We have the ability to create choice by altering our interpretations of the world. We can tell our own stories. And wrong or right, such stories do help people withstand the fear and suffering that accompany serious illness and tragedy. Even beliefs that are unrealistically optimistic according to medical consensus are more beneficial for coping than a realistic outlook.

Views on choice vary by culture. In his book Individualism and Collectivlsm, cultural psychologist Harry Triandis notes that individualists “are primarily motivated by their own preferences needs, rights, and the contracts that they have established with others.”  Members of collectivist societies, including Japan, are taught to privilege the “we” in choosing, and they see themselves primarily in terms of the groups to which they belong, such a, family, coworkers,village, or nation.

Iyengar writes that the need to avoid cognitive dissonance and create a consistent story about who we are, can lead people to internalize values and attitudes that we originally adopted for other purposes. On the other hand, the world is an ever-changing place, and in being too consistent we risk becoming inflexible and out of touch. The challenges we face in finding our authentic self and choosing in accordance with it are considerable. One might say that we are trying to arrive at a state of homeostasis through a feedback loop between identity and choice:  if I am this then I should choose that; if I choose that then I must be this.

According to Iyengar, heuristics seem to give us a way to choose that minimizes risk and increases the likelihood of satisfaction. Unfortunately, we’re not as good as we think we are at recognizing when heuristics assist us and when they lead us astray. As a result, in spite of our best intentions and efforts, we may fail to choose the optimal course of action.  With our availability bias, confirmation bias, our framing issues, etc., we are prone to make the choice that seems easiest and most comfortable.  It does not feel so good to challenge our own opinions. But if you want to make the most of choice, you probably have to make yourself a little uncomfortable.

Iyengar says that we can make better choice by trying to develop expertise. Albert Elnstein wrote that “there is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.”  She also quotes: Herbert Simon:  “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”  Iyengar says that the automatic system does not make predictions or apply theoretical knowledge.  She also notes that it takes about 10,000 hours to develop a world class level of expertise.  I believe Iyengar is mistaken in stating that the automatic system does not make predictions or apply theoretical knowledge.  I think Einstein would agree. (Intuition in J/DM)  But Iyengar is correct in that we we’re also capable of combating our crazy heuristics “through vigilance, persistence, and a healthy dose of skepticism.”

Iyengar says that we need to commit ourselves to some training to make better choices. To begin with, we have to change our attitudes toward choice, recognizing that it is not an unconditional good.  Many of us did not realize this before the choice books.
But what can we do when we want to choose well in an area in which we have no expertise? The obvious answer is to take advantage of the expertise of others.  She also suggests that we take advantage of the wisdom of crowds, the Zagat Survey for example. Categorizing options can also ease the burden of choosing. Reduce your choice set into a manageable number of categories.  Iyengar says that we should experiment with a structured approach to choosing. one that encourages us to pay close attention to the choosing process.  She says that if choice is indeed something we make, as we make art and as we make music, we may be able to look toward these creative disciplines for guidance. She quotes Tocqueville that in order to “hold fast” to something, one must allow oneself to “be held” to something.

Destiny, chance, and choice all work together to determine where we end up. We only benefit from choice when it enhances our sense of control. Today we associate choice with freedom.  We see choice as the practice of freedom. In enacting freedom through choice, we end up looking at what we ought to do.  Choosing is an act of communication.  As has been said before, with freedom comes responsibility.

She comes up with 4 quick tips in the afterword of her second edition:

  1. Cut your options to between 5 and 9.
  2. Gain confidence in your choices by using expert advice.
  3. Categorize the choices available.
  4. Condition yourself by starting out with fewer choices and building up to greater more complex choices.