The Art of Choosing

By Sheena Iyengar. Twelve, $25.99

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York / Issue 755 : Mar 18–24, 2010

Sheena Iyengar’s mediations on the complex psychological mechanisms behind even our humblest choices makes for busy, nourishing and occasionally bland reading. Her book, as she points out, should be especially relevant to Americans, who, from childhood on, insist on choice, the more the better. The ability to make our own decisions is crucial to our sense of well being: studies reveal that it isn’t the CEO who’s likely to have a stress-related illness or heart attack—it’s the assistant. The less control we have (or perceive ourselves as having) in the workplace, the increased incidences of back pain, mental illness, high blood pressure and sick days.

In chapters packed with findings from Iyengar’s own innovative research, the book explores how history, marketing and demographics influence how we approach decisions big and small. Her writing on arranged marriages in India and the collective work ethos in Japan reveals not just cultural differences, but radically different ideas about the definition of choice itself. In some cases, increased options become the foundation for discontent. Iyengar was present at the celebration as the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, but she cites a 2007 survey revealing that 97 percent of East Germans are dissatisfied with democracy, and that 20 percent of Germans want the Berlin Wall to be reinstated.

The author is best when analyzing her own work (particularly research revealing that shoppers are more likely to buy a product when presented with fewer options) and mining her own life. The blind daughter of Punjabi immigrants, Iyengar married across castes to a South Indian Brahman, and she has fascinating things to say on disability, marriage, assimilation and migration. What’s disappointing here is that Iyengar, so acute on information and choice saturation, lobs study after study at the reader without pausing to build a real thesis. The Art of Choosing falters when it drifts into awkward asides to the reader (“you’re a good sport”), platitudes and maddeningly simplistic summations of American history. Ultimately, the book is less a coherent argument about choice and its discontents than a kaleidoscope of protean experiments and science’s dogged attempts to solve the mystery of human motives.

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