Big Think Interview With Sheena Iyengar

Sheena Iyengar: My name is Sheena Iyengar, I’m the S.T. Lee Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School. 

Question: How did you come to study choice?

Sheena Iyengar:  I think I was always informally thinking about choice from when I was a very young child because I was born to Sikh immigrant parents, so I was constantly going back and forth between a Sikh household and an American outside world, so I was going back and forth between a very traditional Sikh home in which you had to follow the Five K’s.  You know never cut your hair, always carry around a comb, never take off your underwear other than…  I mean never take off your underwear even if it was in the shower, dress very conservatively and so I was living, growing up in a very traditional household and yet at the same time I was going to school in the United States where I was taught the importance of personal preference, so at home it was all about learning your duties and responsibilities whereas in school it was all about well you get to decide what you want you want to eat.  You get to decide how you’re going to look and what you’re going to be when you grow up and when people learned that my parents actually had an arranged marriage people thought that was the most horrific thing on earth.  I mean how could anybody allow their marriage of all things to be prescribed by somebody else?  And you know I went home and they seemed… my parents seemed normal.  They didn’t seem to feel like somehow they had been victims of some Nazi camp or something. So it was constantly going back and forth between these two cultures that kept raising the question, well, how important is personal freedom?  And I think that has always been of interest to me. 

Then, the other thing that affected my interest in choices growing up was the fact that I was going blind and that meant that there were lots of questions that constantly kept arising about how much choices I actually could have. So on the one hand in school you’re teachers are constantly telling you that you can be whatever it is you want to be as long as you put your mind and heart to it, and yet at the same time I was also getting the clear message of, well, what can you do really?  I mean can you walk to school on your own?  Can you study science?  Can you study math?  Can you go to a normal school?  Do you need to go to a special school?  What is going to become of you when you grow up?  Are you going to have to live on social security and SSI?  Are you going to be able to shave your legs?  Are you going to be able to get married?  So it was constantly thinking about both choice in terms of possibilities–I mean because choice is the thing that is supposed to enable you to be whatever it is you want to be–and yet, at the same time you have to think about choice in terms of its limitations. And I think that too ended up affecting a lot of the different research questions that I later asked was really was about well to what extent…  How do we balance choice as possibility and choice as limitations? 

Question: Do you approach choice differently from people who have sight?

Sheena Iyengar:  I don’t know if I approach choice any differently than the sighted people do, but what I am very cognizant of is that choice does have limits and because of that I really try to take advantage of the domains in which I do have choice. And when I do have choice I try to be very picky about... or shall I say choosey about when I choose.  I don’t automatically decide that I must be the one to choose or that it’s important for me to make every choice in my life.  I pick what are my priorities and I limit those priorities to less than five in my life and really in those particular areas put in the energy to try to make good choices.  I think of choosing as a… both a fun and an effortful activity and I think of choice as something that in order for you to really get what you want out of it you have to put a lot into it and so I’m only willing to do that for a few different things and for the rest I really just try to either satisfy, come up with a simple rule or let somebody else make the choice.

Question: How did you conduct your first study on choice? 

Sheena Iyengar:  So when I was a PhD student at Stanford University I used to frequent this grocery store called Draeger’s and you know it was…  It’s always a thrilling experience to go into a place that offers you a lot of choice.  You know it’s like it reminds you of when you’re a kid and you go to the amusement park and whether it be Disneyworld or Six Flags you know that thrilling moment when you first enter and you know you’ve got all these possibilities for the day and it’s really a… it’s a wonderful feeling.  So I used to go to this store called Draeger’s and you had a little bit of that same feeling because this was a store that offered you so many varieties, things you’d never contemplated before, you know like 250 mustards and vinegars and over 500 different kinds of fruits and vegetables, or over 2 dozen different types of water and this is at a time when you know most of us drank tap water, so I used to go to this store and examine all the varieties and we used to marvel at all the choices out there, but I found that I rarely bought anything and I kind of thought that was kind of curious.  I mean, they had things that the other grocery stores didn’t have and yet I never bought anything.  And so one day I went to the manager and I asked him whether his model was working and he said, “Well, haven’t you seen how many customers we have in this store?”  And yes indeed I had.  I mean it was definitely attracting a lot of customers, even attracting tourist buses that would land up at this store and people would go through the store and marvel at all the options, even sometimes take photographs of the various aisles. So the manager agreed to let me do a little experiment where we put out a little tasting booth next to the entry.  We either put out 6 different flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam and we looked at 2 things.  First, in what case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam? The first thing we looked at, in what case were people more likely to be attracted to the jar or jam, so in which case are people more likely to stop when they saw the display of jams and what we found was that more people stopped when there were 24 jams.  About 60% of the people stopped when we had 24 jams on display and then at the times when we had 6 different flavors of jam out on display only 40% of the people actually stopped, so more people were clearly attracted to the larger varieties of options, but then when it came down to buying, so the second thing we looked at is in what case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam.  What we found was that of the people who stopped when there were 24 different flavors of jam out on display only 3% of them actually bought a jar of jam whereas of the people who stopped when there were 6 different flavors of jam 30% of them actually bought a jar of jam.  So, if you do the math, people were actually 6 times more likely to buy a jar of jam if they had encountered 6 than if they encountered 24, so what we learned from this study was that while people were more attracted to having more options, that’s what sort of got them in the door or got them to think about jam, when it came to choosing time they were actually less likely to make a choice if they had more to choose from than if they had fewer to choose from. And that really ended up starting an entire area of research where we began to look at "Why is that?"  And a large part of that has to do with the fact that when people have a lot of options to choose from they don’t know how to tell them apart.  They don’t know how to keep track of them.  They start asking themselves "Well which one is the best? Which one would be good for me?" And all those questions are much easier to ask if you’re choosing from six than when you’re choosing from 24 and if you look at the marketplace today most often we have a lot more than 24 of things to choose from.  In fact, even in that store Draeger’s they had 348 different kinds of jam actually in the jam aisle. And what we found over about, say, 10 years of research is that as the number of choices actually increase people are less likely to make a choice and sometimes they do this even when it’s really bad for them.  Like, people are less likely to invest in their retirement when they have more options in their 401K plans than when they have fewer.  People are, even when they do make a choice, they’re more likely to chooses things that are not as good for them.  You know, like, they’ll make worse financial decisions for them if they’re choosing from a lot of options than if they’re choosing from a few options.  If they have more options they’re more likely to avoid stocks and put all their money in money market accounts, which doesn’t even grow at the rate of inflation.  Also if they choose from more options than fewer options they’re less satisfied with what they choose and that is true whether they’re choosing chocolates or which job offer to accept. 

Question: Are all animals capable of making choices, or just those with a higher cognitive ability?

Sheena Iyengar:  What we share with animals is a desire for choice.  It’s a desire to have control over our life and a desire to live and use choice as a way in which we can facilitate our ability to live and that is something we really were born with.  You know, whether it be humans or animals. So even humans–before we can speak or we can understand a baby’s cognition–they’re already showing us signs that they want choice.  You know, you take a little infant and you turn on the music mobile on their crib and you find that if you give them a music mobile which turns on automatically versus a music mobile in which–if by chance their little legs or their little hands accidentally touches it–turns on they’re so much more excited if by chance it turns on because they touched it, so that desire for control over their environment is… really appears from very early on and if you look at children’s first words, “no, yes.”  My child’s first word was "more," but and it’s all about, “I want.”  “I’m going to tell you what I want and what I don’t want.”  It’s about my desire to express my preferences.  And that is really innate.  Now to what…?  How we teach people to make choices and the things they’re going to make choices over–that is culturally learned. 

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. 

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. 

Question: Is it better to make decisions rationally or go with your gut?

Sheena Iyengar:  We are often in society told to make decisions in one of two ways.  We’re either told "Use your gut, just go with how you feel about it and let that guide you," or we’re told to use reason–some very deliberative methodical process of pros and cons and really thinking it through.  Most of the time you should use reason, there is no doubt about that because gut often makes us susceptible to lots of different biases, particularly if what you’re deciding is something that you really, that expertise can be brought to bear on it, there is a way in which you can align the odds, so then you should really use reason.  About the only time our gut can truly outperform our reason is if we truly have developed a kind of informed intuition. So that means the chess master or someone who has really thought about it and given themselves feedback on a particular activity for at least 10,000 hours or more.  About the only question that we would say and this is a big one in our lives that we would say you don’t just use pure reason to decide the answer to is anything that affects your happiness, because then gut and reason answer very different questions. So gut tells you "How do I feel about this right now?"  It doesn’t tell me how I feel about it tomorrow or even a few minutes from now.  It just tells me how I’m feeling right now.  Reason tells me, when I do the pros and cons analysis, how I should feel about it right now and how I should feel about it in 10 years from now and so that the only…  So for decisions about happiness you essentially need at least both and probably even more than that, you probably also need to do analysis that doesn’t involve yourself to get at the answer of what will make you happy in 10 years. 

Question: Is it better to have more choices when it comes to love?

Sheena Iyengar:  What's interesting is that the way we go about finding our marriage partners today is quite different from the way it used to be in this culture.  When you look at…  I’ve done a number of studies with speed dating and and what's interesting is that you know we still walk into a speed dating event, you know, thinking about what it is we’re looking for in a mate and so you ask people, like women will say "I’m looking for somebody who is really kind and sincere and smart and funny." And guys will say looks matter, but they’ll also say things like "Well, she should be smart and kind." And you know those are... so the typical responses and if you give them just a few options, like five or six, then they will rate them on the very characteristics that they said were really important to them.  You know if they said kindness or funniness was really most important to them then they will be more likely to say yes to the person that they thought was kind and funny.  Now if you expand their choice set.  Say you give them 20 different speed dates, everything goes out the window.  Everybody starts choosing in accordance with looks because that becomes the easiest criteria by which to weed out all the options and decide "So who am I going to say yes to?"

A conversation with the Columbia Business School professor.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type ''?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes in 28th place, and in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of,,, and — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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