I had high expectations for this book. Sheena Iyengar's research on choice is well known and often quoted, and I was looking forward to this exposition of her ideas. The book is OK, and will be a worthwhile read for those with a deep interest in choice theory and decision making; however, I personally found the book to be less valuable than other books on this subject.
On the positive side, the book is well researched and is particularly strong when discussing cultural differences regarding choice and decision making. It is loaded with a large number of anecdotes and research studies.
On the negative side, after having read the book, I had a hard time outlining the key points or recalling a handful of particularly powerful examples. Despite the author's frequent references to the importance of a "narrative," I struggled to find the narrative in the book.
In a nutshell, when reading this book I felt as though I would have learned a lot if I'd had the opportunity to spend a semester in one of the author's classes, benefitting from a rich give and take of ideas and arguing the interpretations of the various research findings and personal perspectives. However, not enough of that experience came through in the book -- the studies and examples were mostly ones I had read many times before, and the integrating "theory of the case" was not strongly presented.
For discussions of decision making as it relates to economic or business choices, I found "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely of Duke and "The Winner's Curse" by Richard Thaler of Princeton to be more valuable than "The Art of Choosing." For consumer choice research and issues, Barry Schwartz's "The Paradox of Choice" remains the standard. To swim in the evolution of decision theory as it struggled to integrate its joint heritage in psychology and economics, "Choices, Values, and Frames" by Dan Kahneman and Amos Tversky is the place to look. On the subject of intuitive decsion making, Malcom Galdwell's "Blink" is exceptionally well written and a joy to read.
Ten years ago Malcolm Gladwell released "The Tipping Point" and ushered in a whole bunch of books on what new psychological research has told us about ourselves. Publishers are unwilling to take risks, so there have been many similar books since that time. Thankfully, most of them are as well-researched and written as Gladwell's book.
The latest, and definitely one of the best, is Sheena Iyenga's book, "The Art of Choosing." This book explodes the ideas we have about choice. Did you know that the U.S.A. is the place where choice is valued most highly? In Japan, for instance, people are far more likely to be told where to work and what to wear. Sheena's parents (both Sikhs) had an arranged marriage in India, and there are pictures of the wedding day. Sheena's mother seems to me to be the most beautiful woman in the world (no wonder her husband is laughing at his good fortune).
I knew two Indian programmers that had arranged marriages, but these days the men are in the U.S.A. Relatives back in India contact the parents of suitable women and, in the few weeks of the men's vacation, they go on dates with their "girlfriends," and if all goes well they date some more, until they finally find a compatible partner. This goes against the Western dream of finding a lifetime companion on your own. Apparently millions of people throughout the world manage to find someone, but the spouse is often a co-worker, a co-student, or just one of a circle of friends. We would be shocked if we weren't allowed to choose whoever we wanted to, yet in the current Indian version the women are already expecting to move abroad and to have a nerdy but well-paid husband.
Examples like this proliferate through the book. The new CEO of Coca-Cola in the 1980s had a problem with his senior vice-presidents who thought the company was doing well because they had 45 percent of the soft drink market. He asked them, "What proportion of the liquid market - not just the soft drink market - do we have?" That turned out to be only two percent. The resulting change in the world view of the company led Coca-Cola to increase sales revenue by thirty-five times in just over ten years.
The most famous of Sheena's experiment was the 1995 Jam study, conducted in Draeger's Supermarket in San Francisco. The store was known for its huge selection of every kind of food and food product it offered - 20,000 bottles of wine, 150 kinds of vinegar, and 3,000 cookbooks. Sheena wondered whether the choice was too great so she set up a sample Wilkins Jam taste station which offered either twenty-four or six samples. Anyone who sampled was given a dollar-off coupon for any flavor of the jam.
To the surprise of most people, those who sampled one of the six samples of jam were six times more likely to buy jam than those who tried one of the twenty-four flavors (the six samples were included in the twenty-four). So it seems that there is such a thing as "too much choice."
In the final chapter Sheena discusses choice when the options are limited and either one is bad. Do you take the operation that runs the risk of a five percent chance of dying, or stay with your illness even though it will kill you in the end? There are plenty more mind-challenging things throughout the book, and in the epilogue Sheena talks about seeing S.K. Jain, one of India's famous astrologers, and asks his opinion of her book. Jain says, "This book will far exceed your expectations."
I have to agree with Jain. This book far exceeded my own expectations, and I'm sure it will do the same for you. When you consider that Sheena is blind, I find amazing that she's managed to do all this with her life, and write about it as well. So be artful and choose this book. You won't regret it.
on January 13, 2010
This book covers everything (culture, environment, politics, economy, psychology, religion, history etc) that affects choices. It covers all types of choices from big to small. Everything written in this book is supported by first hand research by the Author herself or someone else Author is able to quote clearly. Her knowledge of the subject is very deep and thorough. Its a hard to put down book. Most valuable message I got from the book - Having less/no choices is not always bad and having lots of choices is not always good. THIS BOOK DOES NOT LECTURE ON HOW TO MAKE CHOICES. It helps you understand and makes you aware of what affects choices.
Who hasn't stood in front of her closet wondering what to wear today? Who hasn't passed on dessert because he couldn't make up his mind? Who hasn't walked out of a clothing store because there were too many choices?
We all make choices every day, from the simple "cereal or eggs?" to the life-altering, "which college shall I attend?"
Sheena Iyengar has written a wonderfully readable book which discusses the many choices that we make every day and delves into the psychology of those choices. Did you know that seven is the apex of the best number of choices to choose from with twelve being too many to remember? Did you know that the candidate at the top of the ballot often receives more votes just based upon the position of his or her name? (Thus the push for states to rotate the position of candidates names instead of just listing incumbents first or in alphabetical order.)
What culture are you from? How does that affect your comfort with freedom of choice? Do you prefer more choices or are you more comfortable if someone chooses for you if they have your best interests at heart?
Iyengar will lead you by the hand to look at the why and how we choose, anything from small to large choices. She has presented a scholarly text, backed with many experiments and references, yet has written it in a way that nearly anyone can follow and grasp the concepts she reviews. Most amazing of all, is that Iyengar travels all over the world, seeks out the resources she needs, and yet has been blind from an early age. She is one very brave and determined woman.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who has ever been curious about why we choose the life we do.
I read a ton of books on personal choice. Having a job in sales, I find it critical to understand what influences a purchase decision. I eagerly requested this book from Amazon Vine to add to my knowledge of personal choice. I assumed it would be another pop book on behavioral finance, but the author's biography made it sound like it could also be a little deeper. Perhaps some sociological roots of choice?
In summary, the book itself is extremely hard to follow because it does not follow a coherent theme, does not go through some sort of dialectic to prove a point, and seems to meander from one idea to another. The author seems rather intelligent in many ways, so perhaps she needs a better editor. After I was done reading the book, I had a difficult time even remembering some of her examples or a coherent theme.
The first chapter discusses choice in general, and the drive for survival that is often led by choice (some interesting survival stories and lab tests). The next chapter discusses how sometimes lack of choice can make someone happier---arranged marriages tend to be happier long term than marriages of choice. She also found more fundamentalist religions (with more rules) tend to make people more optimistic and happy in general.
The author seems confused in many of her analyses of the modern world, and these serve to further befuddle the theme of her book. She interchangeably refers to collectivism in Europe and Asia, not understanding the Asian focus on family that led to their collectivist society versus the European focus on the state that de-emphasized the family (read Schlafly "Who Will Rock the Cradle"). Both are so amazingly different that her interchangeable use of these themes was incoherent.
The rest of the book read like many of my other behavioral finance books, complete with the oft overused story of the jam tasting in the grocery store (6 jams to choose from is better than 24).
Ultimately, I have to judge Sheena Iyengar among her peers in the field of behavioral finance. In 300 pages, I do not feel I came away with new knowledge that wasn't written better elsewhere.
For a more practical treatment as it applies to behavioral economics, I recommend "Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes" by Belsky and Gilovich, "Influence" by Cialdini, or "The Science of Influence" by Hogan. The book is not terrible, but there are plenty of better books to occupy your time.
As other reviewers have noted, books on choice and decision-making seem to be everywhere. Books that report scientific research as a basis for discussion are also popular. Authors like Atul Gawande and Malcolm Gladwell, who blurbed this book, have created a whole sub-genre of best-sellers. If you like their books, you probably would like this one.
What I liked about this book:
The author reported actual research studies. As a former academic who loved research, I appreciated hearing the details so I could evaluate the results. Most research studies have outcomes that can be interpreted in several ways and these are no exception. For instance, I was intrigued by a study that found college graduates who investigated job opportunities extensively enjoyed higher-paying jobs but were less satisfied with their work. This finding seems to question the whole theory of cognitive dissonance, which suggests people will look for reasons to be satisfied. Therefore, something else must be going on.
The author shows cross-cultural influences on choice. This part was one of the most fascinating for me, as I've been rather ethnocentric in my own research interests. Not every culture fosters a desire for choice and decision-making. The author emphasizes the role of arranged marriage. I too have met several couples who assured me that arranged marriages often work out at least as well as romantic marriages; indeed they're often stronger.
Finally, I liked the way the author shows how we often act more like rats in a maze. Our environment influences behavior strongly. The way a decision is framed can influence our choices, whether the framing comes from the way a question is asked, the packaging of a product or the context of choice.
The author writes with a friendly, conversational style. I've met many researchers, especially in her field, who talk about research the way she does: as an enjoyable activity that involves "teaming up" with colleagues of like interests.
On the downside, a lot of what's presented here isn't new. To be sure, some of the material gets presented with new experiments and a new context. But a lot of the principles will be familiar to readers who read a lot of books in this genre and/or have studied social psychology.
The book doesn't get into the powerful implications of these findings. In the section on medical decisions, it's not clear whether the author wants to argue for a special category of decisions or apply decision principles to tough life-or-death decisions. For instance, she notes that a decision to have surgery will be influenced by the way the data is presented - a direct application of a principle that's well identified.
I wish the author had mentioned applications to the legal system, at least in passing. I've read elsewhere that jury verdicts can be influenced by the order in which options are presented to them. There are also questions about what defines criminal activity. For instance, the author notes that a heavy tax on cigarettes in Canada led to higher crime rates (due to smuggling) and lower tax collections. I can't help wondering what would happen if marijuana were legalized and taxed heavily.
We can also apply some principles of the "forbidden toy" experiments to teen drinking. College students have told me they lost interest in drinking and stopped binge drinking altogether when they turned twenty-one. Much of the appeal of drinking was associated with fake IDs. What would choice theory predict about student behavior if the drinking age were lowered to eighteen or even seventeen?
As an aside, the author alludes only occasionally to her own blindness. She developed a rare eye disease and became legally blind in her early teens. It's hard to realize that she's not sighted as she reports "hopping" on trains in Europe and visiting churches to collect survey data. Just getting a PhD and attempting to do research is more than many smart people can handle, and she's doing all this without being able to see. I suspect she won't be writing a book on that topic; she appears to be much more interested in being viewed as a serious academic and researcher.
"We each develop a personal equation to account for the trajectory of life: x amount of choice, y of chance, z of destiny. [...] I believe that choice -- though it can be finicky, unwieldy, and demanding -- is ultimately the most powerful determinant of where we go and how we get there."
THE ART OF CHOOSING is Sheena Iyengar's entertaining exploration of those finicky, unwieldy, and demanding aspects of choice. There's research (expanded upon in extensive sections of endnotes and bibliography), but the "art" of the title refers to how history, culture, philosophy, psychology, and economics affect our big and small choices. For example: Are you part of an I (individualist) or We (collectivist) society? Do your politics tend toward capitalist (freedom from restriction of initiative) or socialist (freedom to enjoy equal opportunity)? Is your perception of *having* a choice more psychologically satisfying than your actually *making* the choice? Can you resist both conformity and uniqueness to choose according to your authentic self? What happens when marketers introduce faux choice through product extension or governments add sin taxes?
With blurbs by Gladwell and Gawande, I was primed to enjoy this book, and I did. It's interesting and readable, although little seems new. And though there are seven chapters, I found it difficult to define a cohesive topic for many, or an arc that develops and concludes over the chapter; I felt more adrift at sea (albeit pleasantly) than in a stream's current. Still, I'm glad for several takeaways -- especially a reminder about how quickly we weary when choosing and Iyengar's counter-intuitive suggestion to make the *easy* choices first (e.g. with a product, what features we most want) so as to winnow out, early on, later irrelevant options.
on February 15, 2010
This is a book I wanted to like more than I did after finishing it. It is a comprehensive look at choice in almost every facet you can think of -- across cultures, results from animal experiments, in settings as diverse as medicine and jazz, the predictive effect of how children make their choices, the fashion and food industries, behavioral finance, subconscious effects, I could go on and on. This book is truly a Tour de Force in the field for the lay audience!
And yet I finished the book feeling vaguely dissatisfied. The title "The Art of Choosing" seems to promise instruction in how to make better choices, "Art" even implying a more refined treatment of the topic. If there's one thing you won't find much discussion of in this book it is how to make better decisions. Other books by business school professors written for the general public, such as "Getting To Yes", cover both current theories and how to apply them. In this book the pendulum swings to one side, providing an amazing compendium about choice research but not too much in the way of practical advice. This book reads well and is ideal for someone wishing to explore the subject in detail, not so great for someone hoping after almost 300 pages to have been instructed in how to make better choices.
I just finished the book after having picked it up MANY times since receiving it MONTHS ago. To dovetail what Amazon reviewer Debra Hamel said (tip of the hat to you, D.H.!) it doesn't grab you like Gladwell's "BLINK" and Ariely's "PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL."
I, too, had the very same problem as D.H.: I had to re-read a lot of this book. It isn't that it's poorly-written, grammatically or otherwise. It was simply difficult for me to relate to: It's a little disconnected and rambling. There are many good bits of information, but they never really come together.
In complete fairness to the Author, I'd already read "Blink" and "Predictably" before reading "Choosing." Maybe it's like having a 7 layer chocolate cake as the entree, and apple pie for dessert!
on March 17, 2012
The start of the book is a good effort and it sheds light on choice, our perception of it and its importance to all living things. Here the focus is just right. Then it looks like the wide angle lens was put on and I'm not sure what I'm following anymore. Next it focuses on uninteresting and well known things or on things the initial pages did not focus our interest on. A promising start, squandered under what appears to be unsteady hand in the art of writing.