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Question: Americans today have an abundance of choices. Is that a good thing?

Sheena Iyengar:  Well certainly not having any choice–having your entire life dictated by others...  You know, like, none of us would choose–no matter where we are in the world–would choose to you know become a member of Orwell’s "Nineteen Eighty-Four" world, but how much choice is really the question.  I mean we know that some choice makes you better off than no choice.  Now do we get better off if we go from a lot of choice versus a few choices?  And there I think the answer is much, much, much more complicated.  If you truly have expertise–and expertise can be say a chess master who has really mastered something or an artist or a musician of some sort you know if you give a jazz musician... Once the jazz musician learns all the fundamentals they can keep track of a lot of choices in an instant.  A chess master can keep track of more choices than the number of stars in the galaxy within an instant, but these are people that have truly learned and mastered the choices that they have and how to deal with those choices over a very, very long period of training, so essentially what they’re really doing is ruling out all the irrelevant choices and only zeroing in on the most relevant, useful choices at the moment. So most of the time when we are confronted by more, rather than a few, choices we’re often novices and so we don’t really know how to differentiate these various options.  We also don’t always know what we want. And in those cases it can actually make us worse off because it’s actually easier to figure out what you want and to figure out how the options differ if you have about a handful of them than if you have a hundred of them. 

More from the Big Idea for Wednesday, January 12 2011

 

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