The Art of Choosing Summary (Sheena Iyengar)

Unable to make decisions? Overwhelmed by choice?

Start with The Art of Choosing summary, based on the book by Sheena Iyengar.

Iyengar, Professor of Business at Colombia Business School delves into extensive research on how and why we choose.

If you want improved insight into your quirky little mind and practical tips for improving future decision making, read on.

But first, a TED Talk by the author:


We tend to view ourselves as rational thinkers, making intelligent choices based upon the available evidence, acting in congruence with our beliefs.

This is a fallacy.

We’re often incredibly contradictory creatures, full of inconsistencies and biases.

Rather than being evidence-based, our decision-making is rooted in transient emotion and mysterious subconscious processes.

All of the decisions we make, big and small, are the result of a myriad of previous, unknown influences, wielding power over us.

Choice mechanism

Our choices are determined by two opposing systems: the automatic and reflective.

Perhaps the most example of irrational decision making is the marshmallow experiment, where children were positioned at a table with a marshmallow before them.

The children were told that they could have one marshmallow now or if they waited, could have two when the researcher returned.

The children who chose to eat the marshmallow immediately were responding to their automatic system, which analyses sensory data (in the form of the juicy visual image and smell of a sweet treat) before initiating an automatic response.

Often automatic responses happen before we even have time to consciously consider them (or the consequences), so the fight or flight response in a life-threatening situation.

The children who elected to ignore the marshmallow, however, were utilising their reflective system, dictated by reason and logic and potential future consequences of the choice.

In the experiment, only 30% of children used their reflective system to wait out the 15 minutes and receive their reward.

Perhaps the most important finding was upon following up with the children years later, where researchers discovered that the children who’d resisted the marshmallow were more successful in life; financially, health-wise and socially.

Mental heuristics can be misleading

By relying on mental rules of thumb to make decisions, we often make mistakes.

Rules of thumb are handy features to allow us to apply evolutionary templates to certain situations, thereby saving time and energy in the decision-making process.

They often work like if-then statements. For example, “If you’ve had a couple of drinks, you shouldn’t call your ex.”

Such heuristics can be conscious or unconscious, such as instinctive fight or flight mechanism when facing danger.

Although heuristics are useful, they can be subject to errors like the availability bias, in which we believe that which is most memorable.

Our memory is notoriously inaccurate, editing previous experience and emphasising incidents which excite our senses.

Therefore, relying on this system for decision making can provide mixed results.

Unique choices

Everyone wants to feel unique and this desire doesn’t stop at decision making.

[Perhaps this is why wearing the same clothes as your friends in frowned upon]

In prediction making experiments, participants who are told that they’re part of the majority are unhappy with themselves, even when they’re correct.

The ones who are part of the minority are happier with themselves, even if they’re wrong.

Conclusion: we don’t mind being wrong. As long as we’re special.

However, we still don’t want to be an oddball. In the same experiment, the participants who were told that their predictions were too odd to satisfy, suffered a decrease in self-esteem, just like the overestimators.

[Probably explains the tendency for hipsters or music aficionados to like things while not many people like them (i.e. they’re still cool) and when they cross a critical threshold in popularity, they suddenly become ‘uncool’]

Culture and choice

We’re not independent agents in our decision making and are heavily influenced by our culture.

  • Individualistic cultures (West) – prefer to be responsible for their decisions
  • Collectivistic cultures (East) – prefer to have decisions made for them

Differences emerge at a young age. In an experiment, Western children preferred a toy they were allowed to choose vs Eastern children, who preferred one selected by their mother.

Understanding our choice preference impact can significantly affect our decision-making performance.

In another experiment, children were given maths tests before and after playing a computer game in which they were either able to choose their spaceship settings or not.

Western children improved by 18% on the follow-up test when they were allowed to choose their spaceship and Asian children improved by 18% when they had their choices made for them.

Subconscious influence

Wih the ‘selective attention effect’, we often forget the world around us when absorbed in a task.

This was demonstrated in ‘The Invisible Gorilla’ experiment. Participants were asked to watch two basketball teams and count the number of passes.

During the game, someone in a gorilla suit walked across the court. Guess what? Due to concentrating on their counting, half of the participants didn’t even notice!

The most important takeaway, however, is that we are influenced or ‘primed’ by stimuli that we don’t consciously notice.

One experiment pushed this to the extreme, where participants were asked to make different sentences from preselected words before secretly having their walking speed measured post-testing.

Those who’d been given words normally associated with old age were found to walk slower to the elevator after the experiment.

Therefore, even the most innocuous environmental factors can have profound effects on our behaviour.

Healthy choices

Choices, or the illusion of choice, makes us healthier.

In a famous study of 10,000 British civil servants back in the 60’s, it was found that employees on a higher pay grade were healthier than their counterparts, who were three times more likely to die of heart attacks than their bosses.

Researchers discovered that it wasn’t the money, but rather increased freedom of choice in structuring their tasks that resulted in improved wellbeing.

The mere perception of choice can have a similarly powerful effect.

In a study of elderly adults in a nursing home, participants were split into two groups.

Both groups, in reality, were given the same freedom and privileges, such as being allowed to visit other floors and choose their movie time.

However, the language used was different, where one group was made to feel that their wellbeing was the responsibility of the staff.

At the three-week follow-up, the group with the illusion of choice reported feeling happier, in contrast to a deterioration in the other residents.

When gut decisions go wrong

Despite relying on gut decision making, they can often be incorrect.

Our intuitions and feelings aren’t as reliable as we’d like to believe, in part due to our environment.

An example comes in the form of a female researcher stopping men on a suspension bridge or a stable bridge, posing them questions and asking them to follow up with a story about a woman and contact her if needed.

50% of men on the dangerous suspension bridge contacted the researcher, compared to 12.5% on the stable bridge and furthermore, their stories contained more sexual innuendo.

The men on the suspension bridge mistakenly confused environmental factors i.e. the anxiety of being on a stable bridge, with romantic feelings, thus influencing their resulting behaviour.

We also tend to overestimate our emotions, especially when recalling past events. This exaggeration is often congruent with our beliefs.

Changing your mind

When making choices, many of us change our mind without conscious awareness.

It boils down to cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable psychological gap between the past and present.

Because we can’t change our past actions, we often modify our present beliefs to achieve a consistent self-image.

This process often happens without us knowing and indeed, research shows that we often defend our new beliefs as if we’ve always held them!

Limit your options

As our attention span is limited, it’s advisable to limit our number of options.

Indeed, humans aren’t really designed to cope with more than seven.

Less is often more, with sales studies showing that consumers are more likely to take action when fewer products are offered.

To avoid overwhelm, we should be clear about what we want in terms of preferences and limit our options.

This categorisation narrows our choice, providing improved frames of reference and information storage, allowing us to be more effective decision-makers.

Letting others decide

It’s often easier to let others decide for us, but only if we’re informed.

In America, parents with terminally ill children have to make the awful decision to stop treatment, while in France, this decision is made by doctors, with parental consent.

In follow up studies, American parents who’d made this impossible decision themselves experienced more doubt, regret and resentment than French parents.

The art of choosing summary

Decisions go beyond logical thinking and rationality into the sticky arena of emotions and environment.

As long as we’re aware, there are steps we can take to mitigate poor decision making.

One such takeaway is to keep a choice diary, logging beliefs and expectations in the moment, before assessing the outcome of previous decisions.

This permits a more objective measure of past choices, allowing us to improve our decision-making skills moving forward.

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