Remember the jam experiment? Actually it was the work of Sheena Iyengar, a psychologist who convinced a luxury food store in Menlo Park to test customer responses to jam samples. Sometimes there were 6 choices, other times 24. What Iyengar discovered was that lots of options drew more shoppers over to the display, but after sampling the shoppers who chose from the smaller number were 10 times more likely to actually make a purchase. In other words, 30 percent versus 3 percent. Too many options appear to make it more difficult to make a buying choice.

This experiment has been co-opted and retold over and over again. Iyengar says that it quickly moved into the public domain and then other people would tell her what her research meant. “The study hardly seems mine anymore, now that it has received so much attention and been described in so many different ways,” she said. “From the various versions people have heard and passed on, a refrain has emerged: More is less. That is, more choice leads to less satisfaction or fulfillment or happiness.”

Iyengar has written a new book that takes that line of thinking to an even deeper, more nuanced place. From a review of Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing written by Virginia Postrel in the New York Times:

More choice is not always better, [Iyengar] suggests, but neither is less. The optimal amount of choice lies somewhere in between infinity and very little, and that optimum depends on context and culture. “In practice, people can cope with larger assortments than research on our basic cognitive limitations might suggest,” Iyengar writes. “After all, visiting the cereal aisle doesn’t usually give shoppers a nervous breakdown.”

Iyengar actually moves her research into interesting territory. For example she compares the issue of choice for religiously observant people versus those who have no imposed code of behavior. What she found was that the prevalence of rules does not rob people of a strong sense of their options. While those who follow a religious path have fewer choices, that commitment to a narrow code seems to empower them and give them a sense of control over their lives.

From the review:

Unlike “provocative” books designed to stir controversy, “The Art of Choosing” is refreshingly thought-provoking. Contemplating Iyengar’s wide-ranging exploration of choice leads to new questions: When is following custom a choice? How costly must a decision be to no longer qualify as a choice? Did Calvinism spur worldly achievement because its doctrine of predestination removed all choice about the hereafter? Do con­temporary Americans adopt food taboos like veganism because they crave limits on an overabundance of choices?

Human beings, Iyengar suggests, are born to choose. But human beings are also born to create meaning. Choice and meaning are intertwined. We use choice to define our identities, and our choices are determined by the meanings we give them, from advertising-driven associations to personal relationships and philosophical commitments. Some meanings we can articulate, while others remain beyond words. “Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers,” Iyengar cautions, “but at its core, choice remains an art.”

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