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The Art of Choosing Hardcover – March 1, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Choice, perhaps the highest good in the American socioeconomic lexicon, is a very mixed blessing, according to this fascinating study of decision making and its discontents. Psychologist Iyengar cites evidence that a paucity of choice can damage the mental and physical health of dogs, rats, and British civil servants alike. But, she contends, choice can also mislead and burden us: advertising manipulates us through the illusion of choice; a surfeit of choices can paralyze decision making; and some choices, like the decision to withdraw life support from a loved one, are so terrible that we are happier if we delegate them to others. Iyengar draws on everything from the pensées of Albert Camus to The Matrix, but her focus is on the ingenious experiments that psychologists have concocted to explore the vagaries of choice. (In her own experiment, shoppers presented with an assortment of 24 jams were 1/10th as likely to buy some than those who were shown a mere six.) Iyengar writes in a lucid, catchy style, very much in the Malcolm Gladwell vein of pop psychology–cum–social commentary, but with more rigor. The result is a delightful, astonishing take on the pitfalls of making up one's mind. (Mar.)
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Prominent social psychologist Iyengar begins her unique and invigorating study of choice by telling the story of a man who survived for 76 days stranded alone in the middle of the ocean. He chose to live, Iyengar tells us, just as she has chosen not to let her blindness keep her from conducting prodigious research and intrepid experiments. Iyengar exponentially expands our understanding of the central role choice plays in the lives of animals and humans in a rapid-fire, many-faceted, and original inquiry that is at once personable and commanding. She explains our “biological need for choice and control,” the decision process, and the myriad influences that dictate everything from purchasing choices to career moves, voting, medical decisions, and marriage. The daughter of Sikh immigrants from India, Iyengar is particularly astute in her globally significant analysis of the striking differences between how Americans and Asians make decisions. Much of this eye-opening anatomy of choice focuses on consumerism, a lively, revealing arena, but Iyengar’s high-voltage curiosity and penetrating insights are far more valuable when applied to deeper matters of existence. --Donna Seaman
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Top Customer Reviews
The book though, just seems to fall short. The best thing I can say about it is that it is forgettable. I 'read' this book in an audio version that I listen to as I walk my dog. I have listened to and enjoyed many books in this format, and I have often found myself extending walks so that I can listen to more of a book if I'm enjoying it. That didn't happen with "The Art of Choosing". I came to this conclusion half-way through, and I tried to diagnose and figure out why this was, and I think is that the main thesis isn't that strong. It just feels like bring a lot of evidence together to support a weak main point -- the studies she cites are interesting, and some are familiar, but they don't feel like a cohesive whole.
It is not bad in any really significant manner, it just doesn't stick. A related text, and an author she cites more than once, does it better in The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home (P.S.) by Dan Ariely.
In the tradition of other recent seminal works in the field of social psychology, such as Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less and Malcom Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, psychologist Sheena Iyengar offers us THE ART OF CHOOSING. Iyengar grounds her work solidity in research (much of it her own), yet she writes in an engaging, vernacular style, often weaving in anecdotes about herself and others.
Iyengar lays the foundation for her theories on choice in the first chapter, "The Call of the Wild" (note that all of the chapter titles are variations on famous works of literature), where she reviews the importance of control in the animal kingdom. Almost immediately, however, she begins to cast doubt upon the idea that choice is a "good" thing--starting with the marriage of her parents, an arranged union that has lasted for over 40 years. Iyengar talks about how our choices are influenced by general factors such as culture but also individual desires, such as the need to be seen as unique and different.
Iyengar goes on to describe how we tend to make particularly poor choices about what will make us happy (a topic covered extensively in Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness) as well as how we tend to become completely overwhelmed when we have to choose amongst more than about seven options, an interesting fact which she confirmed as part of her now-infamous "Jam Study." These are somewhat amusing aspects of our struggles with choice, but what about the true downsides to having personal control? Iyengar expounds on this issue on her final chapter, "And Then There Were None." Here she reviews interviews with young parents, both American and French, who had their infant children taken off life support soon after birth. Because in America, we highly value choice, the American parents had made this final decision themselves, whereas in France, it was the doctors who made the decision. The fascinating result was that, while parents in both countries were grieving, the American parents expressed significantly more anger and resentment, whereas the French parents felt more at peace.
So in the end, is having great choice a good or bad thing? Iyengar never fully answers this question, which may be disappointing to some. Rather, she encourages us to examine our assumptions about choice, to be aware that more is NOT always better, and to make our choices in the most thoughtful manner possible. For further reading on this subject, I highly recommend Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.
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