A Blind Woman Sees Choice Clearly

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar, available in several formats and through many outlets; both text and image links are Amazon affiliate links.  Visit the author’s website at sheenaiyengar.com. She is a powerhouse on her chosen subject of choice–how we choose, how we can choose more wisely.

It’s a little unfair to characterize Sheena Iyengar as a “blind woman”–she would never refer to herself in that way. Her blindness (caused by retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative eye disease) is a tiny part of who she is. I couldn’t resist the title for this post, though. She is indeed someone who thinks, writes—and sees—clearly.

Sheena’s mark was made by her famous “jam study,” which I mentioned in yesterday’s post and have probably noted before. The research project, which she conducted as part of her doctoral studies, aimed to figure out where the sweet spot of choice fell: at what point does “enough” become “too much”? The magic number turned out to be around seven. More than that and people started getting confused.

Or, as the New York Times said in an article about her at the time of her book’s publication:

Here’s the paradox: too much choice paralyzes us, no surprise to anyone who has ever stumbled into a Super Stop & Shop and tried to buy eggs. Dr. Iyengar is the author of a now-famous academic study that describes this paralysis.

Although at the time Dr. Iyengar was hailed as a darling of corporate America, as her study seemed to offer a simple way for marketers to get people to buy more products, her insights haven’t been really been carried out. More’s the pity! I’ve been noticing of late that even Costco is multiplying choices, and I’d been struck especially with how the egg selection has grown. So I was particularly taken by the NYT quotation above about Stop & Shop (which always sounds to me like a 7-11 clone, but I guess it’s not). If I go to the regular grocery story I have size choices, brand choices, color choices, how-the-chickens-were-treated choices—you name it. But back in the day Costco just had its 18-egg cartons, its 5-dozen-egg crates, and I think one organic/cage-free brand. I always bought the 18-egg carton, with its large or extra-large size eggs, and that was that. But now! If I’d read the above article before going to Costco yesterday I would have been nudged to make a quick count of the array. My new choice is the clear plastic carton of 24 eggs, Costco’s own brand, “cage free” (a term with very little meaning), and large. I prefer extra-large or jumbo, but that’s life. And I don’t really like the larger and less-sturdy-than-cardboard carton. You need to put the carton into the fridge with the egg-laden end facing out so that you don’t try to pick it up by the empty end. I hadn’t realized that I needed to do this, and yesterday morning Jim took out the carton to make an omelet and almost lost the remaining ones which were clustered at the far end from where he picked it up.

Well, you need to read this book. Notice that the title is The Art of Choosing. Even though Dr. Iyengar is a devotee of the social sciences, she knows that some things can’t be boiled down to formulas. How did her parents choose to get married? (I’m almost certain it was an arranged one.) Are they happy? (Yes.) How did she react to her blindness? Did she choose to see it as a limitation or a challenge? (You can probably guess the answer.) And how was that jam experiment really carried out? (Pretty much as advertised, but the details are quite interesting.) I’ve been looking around for my copy of the book, which I bought off a remainder table at some bookstore (sorry, Seema!), and I can’t find it. So I just spent an Audible.com credit to buy it. (Although I’m very sorry that the author herself isn’t the reader.) Boy, do I have lots to listen to these days! Between podcasts and audiobooks I need to do lots of housework, walking, and cross-stitching to get it all in.

This book will undoubtedly help you see the patterns, some helpful and some not, that you’ve developed in your own art of choosing.

Here’s Dr. Iyengar’s TED talk from a few years back:

Share with friendsShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Leave a Comment