Sheena Iyengar
Professor, Columbia Business School
03:08

Cultural Factors in Decision Making

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Different cultures have different attitudes about options–and about how many choices a person needs to have in order to decide.

Sheena Iyengar

Sheena S. Iyengar is the inaugural S. T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division of the Columbia Business School. She has earned an Innovation in the Teaching Curriculum award for teaching Leadership Development at Columbia. One of the world's experts on choice, Professor Iyengar received a dual degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992, consisting of a B.S. in Economics from the Wharton School of Business and a B.A. in psychology with a minor in English from the College of Arts and Sciences. In 1997 she completed her Ph.D. in social psychology from Stanford University. Her dissertation, entitled "Choice and Its Discontents," received the prestigious Best Dissertation Award for 1998 from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. Her first book, "The Art of Choosing," was recently published and is an exploration of the mysteries of choice in everyday life.
Transcript
Question: Is choice cultural?

Sheena Iyengar:  Well, you find that in certain cultures we… they don’t put as much of an emphasis in expanding their choices, so that, you know, one of the things that I learned when I was in Japan way back in the 1990’s and there were all these quarrels happening between the U.S. and Japan about allowing more American products into the Japanese market.  I would go to these Japanese stores and you’d see, like, two kinds of toothpaste or five different kinds of potato chips. You know, or three kinds of ice cream bars and you’d see this and like this… okay they could clearly benefit from some more choices and I remember having these discussions with the Japanese because they you know they often like to go to Hawaii for vacation because it was definitely much cheaper for them and I would ask them, “So when you go to Hawaii, you know do eat all these other things?”  And it turned out when they went to Hawaii they would go straight and buy the same thing that they would buy in Japan.  They just got it cheaper, which they liked. And so they would still eat the red bean ice cream or the green tea ice cream, but they didn’t really take advantage of the variety and it wasn’t clear that they cared.  I mean it wasn’t that they sat around thinking oh gosh I needed more choices in my grocery stores the way I had come to think about it as an American growing up.  So I do think that there are cultural differences in the extent to which we value having more and more choice. 

To give you another example, when I was recently in Russia I found that I thought I was going to give these people that I was interviewing a whole bunch of choice in terms of what they could drink while we were chatting.  And I put out a good 10 different types of drinks for them and they just said, “Oh, okay, so it’s just one choice.”  One choice?  I gave you Coke, Pepsi, Ginger Ale, Sprite.  They saw that as one choice.  Now why was that one choice?  Because they felt, well, it was just all soda.  I didn’t really give them anymore than one choice, soda or no soda.  They didn’t… whereas we put a lot of stock in the differences between soda…  I mean we might even go to war as to whether we love Coke or Pepsi and our whole identity is wrapped up in that choice.  You know, for the Russians they felt that these minor differences between these various sodas was just hyped up and irrelevant.  You know give me choices that are truly different from one another, otherwise they don’t regard them as meaningful choices.  There is a different attitude about, you know, how much differentiation there needs to be between our options and how many choices do I need to have in order to make a choice. 

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