The Limits of Blindness on Choice

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.
  • Transcript


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.