Iyengar at Columbia Business School
November 29, 1969
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
|Alma mater||Stanford University
University of Pennsylvania
|Occupation||S.T. Lee Professor of Business|
|Employer||Columbia Business School|
|Known for||Academic research on Choice|
I could wear makeup today, and one person would say it looks bland, another would say it looks fake, and another might tell me I look really natural. Everyone is convinced their opinion is the truth, and that's what I struggle against.
There are times when the presence of more choices can make us choose things that are not good for us. For me the clearest example is that the more retirement fund options a person has, the less likely they are to save for their old age.
Choosing is a creative process, one through which we construct our environment, our lives, ourselves.
When you're choosing furniture for your home that's supposed to express who you are, what you are also saying is you want other people to infer what you want them to infer. What if they see something different? Wouldn't it be really depressing if you're trying to be bohemian and instead they see you as Rush Limbaugh?
When companies try to guess what consumers want, they essentially make the choice for consumers.
What leads us astray is confusing more choices with more control. Because it is not clear that the more choices you have the more in control you feel. We have more choices than we've ever had before.
When I was very young, my background as a Sikh-American made me aware of the tensions that underlie choice.
Knowledge should be a public good, and I want my ideas to have as much exposure as possible.
We're born with the desire, but we don't really know how to choose. We don't know what our taste is, and we don't know what we are seeing.
Being a Sikh meant having to do what Mom and Dad said, and going to temple, and Mom and Dad choosing who I would marry. But going to an American school taught me that I was the one who's supposed to make those choices.
Too many choices can overwhelm us and cause us to not choose at all. For businesses, this means that if they offer us too many choices, we may not buy anything.
Life hands us a lot of hard choices, and other people can help us more than we might realize. We often think we should make important decisions using just our own internal resources. What are the pros and cons? What does my gut tell me? But often we have friends and family who know us in ways we don't know ourselves.
As we get older, we get better at choosing in ways that will make us happy. We do a better job at picking activities that make us happy, and at spending time with people who make us happy. We're also better at letting things go.
Balancing hopes, desires and an appreciating of the possibilities with a clear-eyed assessment of the limitations: that is the art of choosing.
If you have the feeling of choice, if you feel free, you will be better off. And when I say better off I mean that if people feel they have control over their lives, they call in for fewer sick days from work. They have a lesser probability of having a heart attack or stroke. They live longer. They're happier.
In America we tell our parents to bring their child home and put him or her in a crib; as they get older, children sleep in they own room not in Mom and Dad's room. What are we training them for? It's independence, because that's what being empowered is all about.
If we ask for more and more material for the construction, i.e. more and more choice, we're likely to end up with a lot of combinations that don't do much for us or are far more complex than they need to be.
Choice is more than picking 'x' over 'y.' It is a responsibility to separate the meaningful and the uplifting from the trivial and the disheartening. It is the only tool we have that enables us to go from who we are today to who we want to be tomorrow.