So Ladies and Gentlemen, I had the opportunity to interview Sheena Iyengar – the author of “The Art of Choosing” over the phone sometime ago. I had reviewed the book right after and it felt so good speaking with her. We spoke about a lot of things – from marketing to the art of choosing (but obviously) to her literary tastes. She is one of the warmest people I have spoken with and it was an enriching experience. So here is the interview:
So I know this must be an often-asked question, however, here goes: What prompted the conception of this book? What led to its theme?
I was already doing research on the way people get affected by choice for 15 years, mainly for academic purposes – each question in detail – collected little boxes and at some point, you have to say what have I done? Writing the book is really an attempt to fix the little dots. The wider picture of what was going on.
This book looks at three questions: Why do we choose — where does choice get its power from? How do we make choices — what are the various factors that influence how and what we choose? Given all this, how can we choose better?
I’ve written a lot of academic papers, and the only people who read those are academics. As an academic, you almost have an obligation to take your knowledge and disseminate it. So I felt that I should try and write a book for everyone. Of course, the probability of failing when you try to write a book for everyone is the highest. But I figured I should take that risk — otherwise, why write it?
One of my major a-ha moments after reading this book was the realization that our capacity for self-delusion is infinite. We make poor choices, and then cherry-pick data to further support our (wrong) decisions. It’s almost that we tend to defend our choices – good or bad. Is there truly any hope for us to wise up?
There is always conscious intervention. You eat a meal at a restaurant you don’t like – might even end up regretting it. And yet we go there – not changing the decision or the food that you have eaten. We easily assume that they are coincidences.
Sure in many cases people do that. Bad temper is one of them. We do not learn how to control it and sometimes we also think it is other people’s fault. Kya kar sakte hain is a nice phrase to get away with things.
For instance consider traffic on the streets – you have more control than you exercise. Either make it out of habit or consciously. There is the choice that you have, don’t you?
So, ask yourself, why do I want this? Why am I thinking this way? Did I consider the alternatives? Even when we’re doing a reasoned analysis of the options, our gut emotions can end up playing a role in the process if we’re not careful.
Do you ever just toss a coin and make a decision or choose?
Sure I do and there are many instances. For instance, say I meet my son after two and a half weeks or so, I let him decide what he wants to do. Does he want to Pillow fight? Or indulge in Yoga.? Oh yes I am very choosy about when I choose, at the same time. I also let someone else make the choices for me, for instance, let somebody else decide. Let the waiter decide. I will very deliberately delegate choice to others if it isn’t that important to me. The minor choices can be given away to others.
Can one really choose when it comes to brands? While I was reading the book, I came across several examples of how identical products are being branded and priced differently. Then where does the choice element fit in here? Aren’t major corporations just taking the consumer for a ride?
Well I have addressed this through a story at the beginning at Chapter 5. I flip a coin for things may be that aren’t that important – nail polish colours for instance. Does a business woman have the time to choose with reference to this? May be not. Studies have also indicated that may be this is not a meaningful choice. Not worth my time. Let’s take another case in point. Paint colours for walls. It is about the experience of the wall for people. So may be then choices play an important role there.
Are companies trying to manipulate us? Yes. Companies use branding to create differentiation when there’s very little actual difference because the market is so crowded.
Should we worry about being manipulated? Only if it’s in a domain that’s important to us. You need to decide what’s important to you, and that list can’t be long. For those things, you really pull out everything, use your gut, reasoned analysis, gather information from other people. For other things, find the acceptable one. If that means you’re being manipulated, so be it.
But companies need to give a lot more thought to how they should be branding in a more honest way. It’s good for the customer and for them — they really don’t need to add irrelevant options. One of the things they can sell to the customer is that every choice we offer really counts, that it is meaningfully different from other choices.
I was fascinated by how in different cultures, there are different decision-making processes. For instance, in China, it is the collective culture, in India too to a large extent, it is the family system and in a country like the US it is the individual. How does it then work for immigrants? Is the choice factor that strong in that case or different from the country of origin?
Options kick in later. Ability to control temptation takes time. Almost 21 years of age to develop fully. A 4-year old in US knows what he/she wants to be when he/she grows up. That is the message that is sent out to them due to the cultural influence. They are aware that this is a choice they are going to have to make. In India – you don’t do that. Your career is decided on by the entire family. However in Modern India – its not that the individual has no say. Though there is Compromise involved. In America, there is this choice and more and you don’t feel the regret at the end of it.
What are your literary influences?
I was an English minor as an undergraduate, and while I was in school, I really fell for the works of many of the classic poets: Yeats, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Longfellow, Frost. I do love drawing on those kinds of works for my current research and writing. It works nicely, I think, because choice itself cuts across so many disciplinary boundaries. I actually tried my hand at creative writing and poetry as an undergrad, but I ended up realizing that creative writing wasn’t the career for me.
That’s the end of the interview. And there was so much I learnt from her and how she is.
Here’s Sheena Iyengar discussing her book, The Art of Choosing: