The Limits of Blindness on Choice

Question: How did you come to study choice?

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

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

Question: Do you approach choice \r\ndifferently from people who have sight?

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

Question: How did you conduct \r\nyour first study on choice? 

Sheena Iyengar:  So when\r\n I was a PhD student at Stanford University I used to frequent this \r\ngrocery store called Draeger’s and you know it was…  It’s always a \r\nthrilling experience to go into a place that offers you a lot of \r\nchoice.  You know it’s like it reminds you of when you’re a kid and you \r\ngo to the amusement park and whether it be Disneyworld or Six Flags you \r\nknow that thrilling moment when you first enter and you know you’ve got \r\nall these possibilities for the day and it’s really a… it’s a wonderful \r\nfeeling.  So I used to go to this store called Draeger’s and you had a \r\nlittle bit of that same feeling because this was a store that offered \r\nyou so many varieties, things you’d never contemplated before, you know \r\nlike 250 mustards and vinegars and over 500 different kinds of fruits \r\nand vegetables, or over 2 dozen different types of water and this is at a\r\n time when you know most of us drank tap water, so I used to go to this \r\nstore and examine all the varieties and we used to marvel at all the \r\nchoices out there, but I found that I rarely bought anything and I kind \r\nof thought that was kind of curious.  I mean, they had things that the \r\nother grocery stores didn’t have and yet I never bought anything.  And \r\nso one day I went to the manager and I asked him whether his model was \r\nworking and he said, “Well, haven’t you seen how many customers we have \r\nin this store?”  And yes indeed I had.  I mean it was definitely \r\nattracting a lot of customers, even attracting tourist buses that would \r\nland up at this store and people would go through the store and marvel \r\nat all the options, even sometimes take photographs of the various \r\naisles. So the manager agreed to let me do a little experiment where we \r\nput out a little tasting booth next to the entry.  We either put out 6 \r\ndifferent flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam and we looked at\r\n 2 things.  First, in what case were people more likely to buy a jar of \r\njam? The first thing we looked at, in what case were people more likely \r\nto be attracted to the jar or jam, so in which case are people more \r\nlikely to stop when they saw the display of jams and what we found was \r\nthat more people stopped when there were 24 jams.  About 60% of the \r\npeople stopped when we had 24 jams on display and then at the times when\r\n we had 6 different flavors of jam out on display only 40% of the people\r\n actually stopped, so more people were clearly attracted to the larger \r\nvarieties of options, but then when it came down to buying, so the \r\nsecond thing we looked at is in what case were people more likely to buy\r\n a jar of jam.  What we found was that of the people who stopped when \r\nthere were 24 different flavors of jam out on display only 3% of them \r\nactually bought a jar of jam whereas of the people who stopped when \r\nthere were 6 different flavors of jam 30% of them actually bought a jar \r\nof jam.  So, if you do the math, people were actually 6 times more \r\nlikely to buy a jar of jam if they had encountered 6 than if they \r\nencountered 24, so what we learned from this study was that while people\r\n were more attracted to having more options, that’s what sort of got \r\nthem in the door or got them to think about jam, when it came to \r\nchoosing time they were actually less likely to make a choice if they \r\nhad more to choose from than if they had fewer to choose from. And that \r\nreally ended up starting an entire area of research where we began to \r\nlook at "Why is that?"  And a large part of that has to do with the fact\r\n that when people have a lot of options to choose from they don’t know \r\nhow to tell them apart.  They don’t know how to keep track of them.  \r\nThey start asking themselves "Well which one is the best? Which one \r\nwould be good for me?" And all those questions are much easier to ask if\r\n you’re choosing from six than when you’re choosing from 24 and if you \r\nlook at the marketplace today most often we have a lot more than 24 of \r\nthings to choose from.  In fact, even in that store Draeger’s they had \r\n348 different kinds of jam actually in the jam aisle. And what we found \r\nover about, say, 10 years of research is that as the number of choices \r\nactually increase people are less likely to make a choice and sometimes \r\nthey do this even when it’s really bad for them.  Like, people are less \r\nlikely to invest in their retirement when they have more options in \r\ntheir 401K plans than when they have fewer.  People are, even when they \r\ndo make a choice, they’re more likely to chooses things that are not as \r\ngood for them.  You know, like, they’ll make worse financial decisions \r\nfor them if they’re choosing from a lot of options than if they’re \r\nchoosing from a few options.  If they have more options they’re more \r\nlikely to avoid stocks and put all their money in money market accounts,\r\n which doesn’t even grow at the rate of inflation.  Also if they choose \r\nfrom more options than fewer options they’re less satisfied with what \r\nthey choose and that is true whether they’re choosing chocolates or \r\nwhich job offer to accept.

Growing up in a Sikh-American family, the business professor became fascinated with decisions. As she gradually grew blind, she wondered how much her own choices would be diminished.

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