- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Twelve; 1st edition (March 1, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0446504106
- ISBN-13: 978-0446504102
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 127 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #579,046 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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Nonetheless, it is well written, and contains some hugely important insights in its cross-cultural insights. I was particularly interested in the comparison of collectivist and individualistic cultures as regard choices. What may be motivating to some people may be disconcerting and unwelcome to others - something that is important for multinational corporations as they seek to motivate their workers. Those of us who have grown up in the individualistic cultures of the West may be surprised to read that what we would perceive as a frustrating lack of choice in the more collectivist cultures is actually described as reassuring and more likely to ensure fairness.
If you are looking for an entertainingly written account of research on choice at an "academic, a few thousand feet up" level rather than a "down on the ground where we are making choices" work it is an excellent read and I am glad to have added it to my library.
Iyengar also delves into the cultural differences that distinguish Americans from the Eastern world. Like Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Iyengar shows how Americans are culturally different, much different. Here, Iyengar writes about Americans value liberty and freedom of choice. A Japanese toddler will perform better on a puzzle, for example, if told that her mother picked the puzzle to solve. By contrast, an American toddler will ask incredulously, "Really? You asked my mom to pick?" Reviewing the preferences for domains for choice, Iyengar concludes, "Americans desired personal choice in four times as many domains of life as did the Japanese."
We should take heed of the simple truth that, as Iyengar recounts over and over, with more choice comes more regret. Followers of fundamentalist faiths are the happiest because, as Iyengar writes, "The presence of so many rules didn't debilitate people; instead, it seemed to empower them. Many of their choices were taken away, and yet they experienced a sense of control over their lives." Unitarians and atheists are the most susceptible to pessimism and depression, she finds. Collectivist cultures might value familial duty to the detriment of choice, so much so that children are asked to enter into arranged marriages. But it turns out, Iyengar shows, that arranged marriages usually have better outcomes than love-based ones.
Iyengar saves the best parts of the book for the end. There, she writes more like an old friend, giving the reader sage advice gained from time, on how to make better decisions on all things big and small. For big decisions, get some help. "We frequently look to sources of authority and expertise to alleviate the burden of a difficult decision--finding someone who tells us that we went the right way in a tough bind can go a long way toward making us feel better about it, even if the actual outcome remains unchanged," she writes. And you'll make better choices--and leave yourself with less regret--if you remind yourself of your most deeply committed principles. "The key is to recognize--to return to the words of de Tocqueville--that in order to "hold fast" to something, one must allow oneself to be held to something," Iyengar advises. "That commitment may be one of the hardest things to practice in a world of so much choice.""
And what about a grander goal, more important than choosing the best flat-screen? To lead a better life, Iyengar counsels us to define our narrative. Use a simple exercise: "Write three versions of the story of your life (or a particular period in your life), looking in turn through the lenses of destiny, chance, and choice. Which of these versions is most motivating for you? Which one encourages you to try harder, push further, reach higher? Which emphasizes that you have the power to go from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow?"
A lot of what Iyengar writes is described elsewhere in this genre, both in the best-seller from Iyengar's former mentor, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and in a more Malcolm Gladwell-ish format in How We Decide. But I got the impression while reading Iyengar's book that she earnestly wants to help her readers make better choices and lead better lives. Her book is not just academic pursuit, but a gift of knowledge from someone that knows so much about her field that she can't help but share it with us.