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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[…]

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.

Question: How did you come to study choice?

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

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

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

Sheena Iyengar: rn I don’t know if I approach choice any differently than the sighted rnpeople do, but what I am very cognizant of is that choice does have rnlimits and because of that I really try to take advantage of the domainsrn in which I do have choice. And when I do have choice I try to be very rnpicky about... or shall I say choosey about when I choose.  I don’t rnautomatically decide that I must be the one to choose or that it’s rnimportant for me to make every choice in my life.  I pick what are my rnpriorities and I limit those priorities to less than five in my life andrn really in those particular areas put in the energy to try to make good rnchoices.  I think of choosing as a… both a fun and an effortful activityrn and I think of choice as something that in order for you to really get rnwhat you want out of it you have to put a lot into it and so I’m only rnwilling to do that for a few different things and for the rest I really rnjust try to either satisfy, come up with a simple rule or let somebody rnelse make the choice.

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

Sheena Iyengar:  So whenrn I was a PhD student at Stanford University I used to frequent this rngrocery store called Draeger’s and you know it was…  It’s always a rnthrilling experience to go into a place that offers you a lot of rnchoice.  You know it’s like it reminds you of when you’re a kid and you rngo to the amusement park and whether it be Disneyworld or Six Flags you rnknow that thrilling moment when you first enter and you know you’ve got rnall these possibilities for the day and it’s really a… it’s a wonderful rnfeeling.  So I used to go to this store called Draeger’s and you had a rnlittle bit of that same feeling because this was a store that offered rnyou so many varieties, things you’d never contemplated before, you know rnlike 250 mustards and vinegars and over 500 different kinds of fruits rnand vegetables, or over 2 dozen different types of water and this is at arn time when you know most of us drank tap water, so I used to go to this rnstore and examine all the varieties and we used to marvel at all the rnchoices out there, but I found that I rarely bought anything and I kind rnof thought that was kind of curious.  I mean, they had things that the rnother grocery stores didn’t have and yet I never bought anything.  And rnso one day I went to the manager and I asked him whether his model was rnworking and he said, “Well, haven’t you seen how many customers we have rnin this store?”  And yes indeed I had.  I mean it was definitely rnattracting a lot of customers, even attracting tourist buses that would rnland up at this store and people would go through the store and marvel rnat all the options, even sometimes take photographs of the various rnaisles. So the manager agreed to let me do a little experiment where we rnput out a little tasting booth next to the entry.  We either put out 6 rndifferent flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam and we looked atrn 2 things.  First, in what case were people more likely to buy a jar of rnjam? The first thing we looked at, in what case were people more likely rnto be attracted to the jar or jam, so in which case are people more rnlikely to stop when they saw the display of jams and what we found was rnthat more people stopped when there were 24 jams.  About 60% of the rnpeople stopped when we had 24 jams on display and then at the times whenrn we had 6 different flavors of jam out on display only 40% of the peoplern actually stopped, so more people were clearly attracted to the larger rnvarieties of options, but then when it came down to buying, so the rnsecond thing we looked at is in what case were people more likely to buyrn a jar of jam.  What we found was that of the people who stopped when rnthere were 24 different flavors of jam out on display only 3% of them rnactually bought a jar of jam whereas of the people who stopped when rnthere were 6 different flavors of jam 30% of them actually bought a jar rnof jam.  So, if you do the math, people were actually 6 times more rnlikely to buy a jar of jam if they had encountered 6 than if they rnencountered 24, so what we learned from this study was that while peoplern were more attracted to having more options, that’s what sort of got rnthem in the door or got them to think about jam, when it came to rnchoosing time they were actually less likely to make a choice if they rnhad more to choose from than if they had fewer to choose from. And that rnreally ended up starting an entire area of research where we began to rnlook at "Why is that?"  And a large part of that has to do with the factrn that when people have a lot of options to choose from they don’t know rnhow to tell them apart.  They don’t know how to keep track of them.  rnThey start asking themselves "Well which one is the best? Which one rnwould be good for me?" And all those questions are much easier to ask ifrn you’re choosing from six than when you’re choosing from 24 and if you rnlook at the marketplace today most often we have a lot more than 24 of rnthings to choose from.  In fact, even in that store Draeger’s they had rn348 different kinds of jam actually in the jam aisle. And what we found rnover about, say, 10 years of research is that as the number of choices rnactually increase people are less likely to make a choice and sometimes rnthey do this even when it’s really bad for them.  Like, people are less rnlikely to invest in their retirement when they have more options in rntheir 401K plans than when they have fewer.  People are, even when they rndo make a choice, they’re more likely to chooses things that are not as rngood for them.  You know, like, they’ll make worse financial decisions rnfor them if they’re choosing from a lot of options than if they’re rnchoosing from a few options.  If they have more options they’re more rnlikely to avoid stocks and put all their money in money market accounts,rn which doesn’t even grow at the rate of inflation.  Also if they choose rnfrom more options than fewer options they’re less satisfied with what rnthey choose and that is true whether they’re choosing chocolates or rnwhich job offer to accept.