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The Art of Choosing

Several popular books have appeared over the last few years on topics related to consumers, behavior, psychology and economics. Perhaps the most popular are the ones by Malcolm Gladwell. While most use academic research liberally to make their points, relatively few have actually been written by an academic. The reasons are twofold. One, you need an academic who has done sufficient research in an area that is worthy and of interest to the general public and two, you need good writers for lay readers. That combination is hard to come by -- which makes The Art of Choosing an unusual and interesting book. It was written by Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia University Business School and deals with a topic we are all familiar with – choice. She has spent a couple of decades studying this topic and is hence eminently suited to write on it. The fact that she is blind makes it almost awe inspiring to read.

People (especially Americans) are conditioned to think that more choice is good (in that it leads to more satisfaction) and that they almost always are the sole determinants of the choices they make. Drawing upon her own research and that of others, she is able to show that these are not always true. Her jam experiment (which funnily enough gets quoted back to her quite often) showed that more choice can be paralyzing. Her work with other cultures showed that limited choice can sometimes be better than too much choice. She digs deep into research in psychology that shows our efforts at being unique by controlling the choices we make, but that ultimately makes us similar to most other people. She actually makes a pretty good case that our lives are more similar to that of the characters from the movie The Matrix than we realize. Scary.

This interesting profile article shows how she makes choices in her life.

Here at TRC we have a two-degree separation from her as her brother-in-law Raghu Iyengar is one of our academic collaborators and conference presenters.

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