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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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Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail and now Free: The Future of a Radical Price is out promoting his book. (I know, I know, the irony is too tempting isn’t it? No the book is not free, and neither are his speaking engagements. But I digress…) Now with a review in the Times Book Review last Sunday by Virginia Postrel, his ideas are being bandied about a lot.

Anderson is very smart. I thought The Long Tail offered brilliant insights into how the internet has shifted business paradigms, models and best practices. I haven’t read Free yet but certainly intend to.

But even without having read the book, interviews with Anderson have piqued my curiosity. “People are making lots of money charging nothing,” says Anderson. “Not nothing for everything, but nothing for enough that we have essentially created an economy as big as a good-sized country around the price of $0.00.”

Although Anderson is writing about business models and for profit entities, I can’t help but compare his thinking with one of my favorite books, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde. I have referenced Hyde’s work before (his other book, Trickster as well as his poetry here on Slow Muse, and articles about his thinking on Slow Painting) and continue to recommend The Gift as a book that every artist and maker should read.

Hyde’s territory is not the same as Anderson’s, but I keep putting the two of them in the same room in my head, hoping they get past the small talk and into some real content. There’s something going on here, a parallelism worth exploring regarding giving for free, gifting to others, connectedness between stakeholders and community.

Hyde gives a historical overview of how gifts and gifting have impacted the inner life concerns like emotions, feelings, spirituality. In Hyde’s model of the gift economy, a gift can be tangible or immaterial (like a talent, or teaching). He writes, “I have hoped…to speak of the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture. I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.”

In describing a “gift economy” Hyde demonstrates how its purpose is to build and strengthen human connection and relationships. That is a very different set of goals from the market economy that Anderson is addressing. Hyde makes the distinction between the commerce of gifting, which is rooted in the “erotic” (as in bringing together, the power of attraction) and the commerce of the market economy, which is founded on “logos” (logic, distinction.)

In the market economy, the hoarding (or “saving”) of goods is one way to build wealth. In Hyde’s gift economy, the opposite is true. Wealth actually decreases with hoarding since it is the circulation of gifts within a community that results in an “increase”— of connections, the strengthening of relationships, and of community. For Hyde, the circulation and perpetual flow of gifts is the key.

Anderson’s concepts are about redistributing the profiteering. He talks of cross-subsidies, “shifting money around from product to product, person to person, between now and later, or into non-monetary markets and back out again.” But in all this cross subsidizing, in all this money that comes in here and goes out there, goes up then down, in and around, isn’t something else happening here?

Worth sitting with, it seems to me.

Hopefully there will be more on this later.

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