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The Myth of Choice: Personal Responsibility in a World of Limits Hardcover – October 11, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“A fascinating account of the constraints on personal choice, and the consequences of those constraints for sexuality, religion, politics, law, and everyday life.”—Geoffrey R. Stone, author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime
(Geoffrey R. Stone 2011-05-11)

"Informative, lively and provocative, The Myth of Choice has important implications for the decisions we make in our everyday lives."—Glenn C. Altschuler, Oregonian
(Glenn C. Altschuler Oregonian)

"[F]ascinating . . . it is undeniably important that we become better aware of the forces that subtly and profoundly limit our choices."—Michael Kroner, The Plain Dealer
(Michael Kroner The Plain Dealer)

"A fascinating, engaging dissection of the meanings and implications of choice in a wide variety of cultural arenas."—Matthew Tiffany, Shelf Awareness
(Matthew Tiffany Shelf Awareness)

“Greenfield unpacks the complexities masked by the free-market bromides, which pass for economic debate in the United States, deftly dispatching ossified conventional wisdom that completely ignores our growing knowledge of how people actually make decisions. “—Boston Globe
(Boston Globe)

"Informative, lively and provocative, The Myth of Choice: Personal Responsibility in a World of Limits has important implications for the decisions we make in our everyday lives."—Glenn C. Altschuler, The Sunday Oregonian
(Glenn C. Altschuler The Sunday Oregonian)

From the Inside Flap

"Kent Greenfield has written a brilliant, profoundly thought-provoking book about the many constraints on decision making, from the most personal choices to those of the highest government officials."--Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Irvine, School of Law

"Kent Greenfield argues in lively, accessible style that much of what we experience as choice is better understood as the product of circumstance. His challenge is meant to unsettle our beliefs, our judgments, and our values--and it does."--Noah Feldman, author of Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices

"Kent Greenfield has a knack for conveying difficult ideas in accessible terms. The Myth of Choice, sure to be a hit, focuses on one of the great challenges in law and policy--how to reconcile our idealistic belief in choice with everyday realities."--Heather K. Gerken, au- thor of The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System Is Failing and How to Fix It

"The Myth of Choice shows that we can make better choices for ourselves and design better public policy by understanding the promise, and the limits, of choice."--Pamela S. Karlan, author of Keeping Faith with the Constitution

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (October 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780300169508
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300169508
  • ASIN: 0300169507
  • Product Dimensions: 9.8 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #769,805 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Kent Greenfield grew up in a small farm town in western Kentucky, where his mother was a school teacher and his father was a Baptist preacher. For college, he went off to Brown University, the first kid in his town to do so. He lived in California for a few years before spending a year traveling around South America and finally returning to the United States to go to law school. After law school at The University of Chicago, he practiced at a law firm only long enough to realize he didn't like it.

Greenfield later clerked for Justice David Souter of the United States Supreme Court, and then joined the faculty at Boston College Law School. There, he teaches corporate and constitutional law, economic analysis of law, and legal theory. In corporate law, he is known for advocating that corporations owe obligations to all stakeholders of the company, including employees and local communities. His 2011 book THE MYTH OF CHOICE argues that most of us, most of the time, are much more constrained in our decisions than we realize.

Greenfield lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, children, and rescue dog.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Rarely do you find a book that mixes such sharp insight, meticulous research, and humorous storytelling. The author is an engaging writer, who makes reading every chapter a delight. The book is smart too, revealing the subtle and fascinating ways that our personal choices about sex, money, work, and politics are limited. We think of ourselves as free to do whatever we want, but Greenfield shows how the law, the marketplace, and our own hidden biases restrict our choices in ways that we never acknowledge. There's a telling anecdote on every page. Greenfield masters the cutting-edge research in one field after another, then puts it together in a novel and persuasive way. Just as important, The Myth of Choice gives you the tools to understand how to improve your own decision making in everyday life -- whether buying a new washing machine, choosing a mate, or deciding who to vote for come Election Day. Definitely on my list of best books of the year!
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Format: Hardcover
I first read this book in draft, and was so thrilled about it that I did a back cover blurb. Professor Greenfield's voice really is that of a new and exciting public intellectual. My blurb said that the book is "bubbling with policy recommendations, fascinating paradoxes, and homespun personal advice about our most important life choices. A must read for thought leaders, regulators, and anyone who cares about novel and interesting ideas."

I'll be a little more specific here than is possible in a blurb. From the beginning, Greenfield grabs us with the question of whether we face constraints on our choices. The answer is clearly yes, and once he has hooked us, he explores several types of constraints, ranging from culture to power. You won't think about sex trafficking the same way again.

For example, his exploration of how our biological limitations, particularly in our brains, limit our choices is more accessible and interesting than the ones offered by many neuroscientists. There is some memorable and lively writing here, as when Greenfield discusses the "bikini effect" - why men buy more beer when we see attractive women - and says this: "Men see attractive women and crave pleasure. In the absence of something better, they get their drink on. That's also why casinos dress their hostesses in scanty outfits, why car shows are staffed with sexy women, and why Tomb Raider Lara Croft has breast implants." You won't forget THAT point.

His chapter on markets is especially compelling, and is directly relevant to economic policy and decisions. Although markets are powerful and often allocate resources in reasonable ways, Greenfield points out their failures, and how they relate to what we too often think of as our own free choices.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
With a background in psychology, as well as some dabbling in philosophy and legal thought, I was totally excited to read this. The cover is absolutely perfect. The writing is good, and often entertaining. Some points are well taken -- e.g. choice is only meaningful if your other option is an acceptable one. Also the discussion of the inappropriate impact of markets on choice is very good.

In general, though, Greenfield uses only a handful of examples to support his arguments, failing to persuade someone who isn't already of his point of view. He indulges frequently in sharing his own opinion on a variety of topics. Opinions are cheap, scholarship is demanding; and there is less breadth and depth in that latter than I would have hoped. Most thoughtful people already understand most of what he has written here; his book adds little to the discussion.

As an example of the lack of depth, Greenfield only touches on what the world might look like to someone growing up in an impoverished environment, and whose particular "cognitive set" reflects the limitations and biases of their environment; he stretches himself very little to find his central example -- his mother. Also missing is conversation about the effectiveness of efforts (including public education) in overcoming these barriers, as well as any nuanced discussion of their perpetuation and intransigence.

As though to distract himself from the shallowness of his inquiry, Greenfield suggests how to solve the problem of cultural assumptions -- e.g. more funding for VISTA programs and Peace Corps, community promises made by parents & students at failing schools. While these ideas individually may be worthwhile, his brief, afterthought mention of them here ends up sounding like a doe-eyed middle-class panacea designed to end his book on a positive note.

This was an entertaining read, but ultimately fell considerably short of expectations.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For one schooled in the law, Greenfield's autodidactic command of the neurosciences is impressive. Without the burden of a lengthy preamble, Kent makes it clear at the outset which direction he intends to go. "We are constrained by our own biology," he observes, "[The] scope of our choices is much narrower than we have long assumed." He gently, but persuasively, reminds the reader that what we know as the freedom to choose, may, in fact, be little more than appearance; and appearances can be deceiving. As he notes, "This book is about our fixation on choice and our confused responses to it."

Included in his abundant list of anecdotes and case studies (which sometimes reveal a dark and coercive side to choice) is reference to our disdain for the obese. We tend to judge such persons as lazy, and ascribe to them a history of making chronically bad and undisciplined choices. But as Greenfield writes, "fat people probably have less responsibility for their size than the climbers on Mount Hood had for being on the slopes of a mountain in December." The science supports what may be a counterintuitive notion. Not looking to excuse fast-food habits, Greenfield notes that "More and more studies show that people are `hard-wired' to eat by deep biological commands. Eating to excess is often a product of the kinds of foods available and how they are marketed, the cultural messages people receive about food, how much money they have, and the availability of safe places to exercise." This ineluctable fact has not escaped the attention of crafty marketers and deft business executives. "[The] most perfect coercion will appear as choice." Brilliant!

When it comes to making choices, there is no escaping neuroscience.
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