Sheena Iyengar is professor of business at Columbia
Business School and author of The Art of Choosing,
shortlisted for the Financial Times Business Book of the
At a luxury food store in California, researchers set up
tables offering jam tasting. Sometimes, there were six
different flavors to choose from, at other times 24.
Shoppers were more likely to stop by the table with more
jam, but those who stopped at the smaller selection were
10 times more likely to actually buy jam (30 percent
versus 3 percent).
While choice is important, says Sheena Iyengar, Professor
of business at Columbia Business School, and author of
The Art of Choosing (shortlisted for the Financial Times
Business Book of the Year 2010) more selection does not
always result in a clearer or better choice. Allianz
asked her why not.
Your book, The Art of Choosing (Twelve, 2010), describes
the desire to choose as so innate that we act on it as
infants before we can even express it. Why is the desire so
strong in humanity?
Sheena Iyengar: It's not just people. Animals also need
choice. You see this in zoos. They don't need to worry
about food, shelter or safety from predators. All the
necessities of life are catered for, but they suffer
terribly as choice is taken away. All species have the
desire for some control over their environment.
You illustrate that with, among others, the Siberian tiger
and the Berlin "surfing" bear and their quests
for freedom. Yet, you imply that the drive for choice is
particularly strong for people.
Iyengar: What animal is happy in a cage, no matter how
gilded? Prison seems to be a universal penalty. But people
are more sophisticated in that we've moved beyond just
control. We are also able to think of ways we want to
exercise control, of the tools by which we execute control
This is perhaps our most powerful ability for controlling
our environment and has enabled us to dominate the planet
despite the absence of claws, sharp teeth or other obvious
How can we understand whether we're making the right or
wrong choice? Is it innate?
Iyengar: If we can define our goals precisely and in a way
that we can measure the outcome, we can then see if
we're choosing for the better or for the worse. When it
comes to choice, too many of us procrastinate, particularly
on weighty topics such as retirement planning and
How can we overcome this?
Iyengar: The first thing is to identify your goals. Many of
us don't spend enough time doing that. Until you
identify that goal, even if it's just a short-term one,
you cannot determine what the best of the competing
alternatives would be. But you have to define your goals in
a way that they are measurable.
Is there some kind of discipline to help define our goals?
Iyengar: Yes, we can ask ourselves, "What would be the
best-case scenario I can hope to achieve and what would be
the worst-case scenario?" That gives us our
parameters. Now, bump it up from the worst-case scenario
and say, "If I got this much, could I live with that?
And if I got a little more than that, could I live with
Then you find out where your cut-off point is. Once you
find your cut-off, then you know what the dominating
At the root of procrastination is often fear. We are scared
that we will make the wrong choice.
Iyengar: Quite so. I think people aren't willing to
identify their goals because they are worried they will
learn what their constraints are. They are also worried
they might actually find out they are going to end up being
However, the only way you can maximize your ability of
getting closer to what you want, of aligning the odds in
your favor a little, is by starting with the process of
identifying your goals.
And that applies in all areas of life?
Iyengar: Anywhere you can achieve a measurable outcome. One
big area where you can't is happiness. Money, in some
sense, is a much easier goal to obtain, as are financial
stability, job security and those kinds of things.
What is hard is identifying, aligning and measuring your
goals in terms of happiness. We know if we're
miserable, neutral or happy. But we only know all of these
emotions in a fleeting way.
These emotions change a lot, and we don't have an
accurate ability to measure them. This is what makes
decisions of happiness, love or anything involving pure
emotion kind of tough.
In terms of retirement planning, you say one obstacle is
getting people into retirement plans, but once in, they are
often overwhelmed by the choices. Can you explain this
dilemma and how we often end up making poorer decisions
when more choice is available?
Iyengar: When we have more choice, we feel we should be
able to find the perfect option. We demand more, but at the
same time, the presence of more choice does not guarantee
that it will offer you more - it could all be the same
option in different packaging.
It also takes more work to figure out if the options really
are different, which one is the best, which one isn't.
That all creates a sense of confusion, frustration and
disillusionment that can end up with us making poorer
So, too much choice can be a tyranny?
Iyengar: Absolutely. Take the Swedish pension system, for
example. When they switched in 2000, the system was
designed as pro-choice, but people were simply overwhelmed
by having to choose up to five of 450 funds.
Would we be happier if we gave up our right to too much
choice in some areas of life?
Iyengar: Traditionally, Europeans seem more comfortable
with that idea, while Americans have much more mixed
feelings about that. This contributes to notions of
happiness within the different cultures because when you
believe in more choice, it becomes harder to be happy.
If you're convinced that there's possibly something
better out there and it's your job to find the best,
happiness can become ever more elusive.
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