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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[…]

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

Question: Is choice cultural?

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

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