Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Choice Expert


I Pick Sheena Iyengar

By John Taylor; 2010 July 28, Kalimat 15, 167 BE

My life has been enriched by the TED talk video feed, which sends you a twenty minute talk designed to make you think every day or so. You can have the TED website automatically send by email a weekly list of links to their talks, as I do, but the best way I have found is to install the Miro viewer and subscribe to the TED feed from there. This has all but replaced television for me.

My latest enthusiasm is for a talk given by Sheena Iyengar, based on her upcoming book, The Art of Choosing. She tells personal anecdotes about her attempt to buy sweet green tea in Japan, and reports results of studies that found that when parents are given a choice about when to take their moribund baby off life support, as in America, they later feel much more miserable about the experience than French parents, who are not given a choice: the doctors makes that decision on their own. Just getting the choice put in your lap poisons you, but in every case the miserable American parent says they are glad they got the choice. In North America we have a fetish about offering choices, even false ones. As one of the comments to the TED talk says, we take our misery as a price of putting God or fate out of the equation.
You can watch her presentation, called, "Sheena Iyengar on the art of choosing," at:

I was so enraptured by her idea that choice is not always a good thing that I looked up the article about her at Wikipedia,

Her background, a blind Sikh who emigrated here as a baby, no doubt prepared her to become what the article calls a "world authority on choice." Her tradition would not have given her the choice even of whom to marry. Without that choice, marriages are happier and fail less often, but again, we willingly but stupidly take the misery of a chaotic marriage market as the price of freedom.

The Wiki article includes links to pdf files of her academic studies and reports, enough to keep us busy until her popular book comes out. Here are some samples, from the abstracts,

When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?

"Current psychological theory and research affirm the positive affective and motivational consequences of having personal choice. These findings have led to the popular notion that the more choice, the better -- that the human ability to manage, and the human desire for, choice is unlimited. Findings from 3 experimental studies starkly challenge this implicit assumption that having more choices is necessarily more intrinsically motivating than having fewer..."

"Doing Better but Feeling Worse; Looking for the Best; Job Undermines Satisfaction"

My paraphrase of the abstract: Students who seek the very best summer job make themselves miserable, while those who blithely take whatever is available enjoy the experience more.

"The Mere Categorization Effect: How the Presence of Categories Increases Choosers; Perceptions of Assortment Variety and Outcome Satisfaction"

"... the mere presence of categories, irrespective of their content, positively influences the satisfaction of choosers who are unfamiliar with the choice domain. ... categories (signal) greater variety among the available options, which allows for a sense of self-determination from choosing."

After read about her ideas, I began to think that she may not appreciate the political implications of her discoveries about choice. False choices is all about what makes democracy the a horrible, corrupt mess that it is. False choices are what kills the green movement. I got that feeling as I was reading Al Gore's latest book. He goes through all the choices we have for energy, nuclear, solar, geothermal, and on and on.

The more I read the more annoyed I get at this presumption that laying out choices, and going into endless detail about the choices available, is somehow democratic. It is not, it is the reverse of democratic. It is mere obfuscation. A healthy democracy needs clarity more than any other kind of governance, and information can pollute as much as smoke can cloud the air or oil the Gulf of Mexico.


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