Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

The beauty - and burden - of having choices

Sheena Iyengar, the inaugural S.T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division at Columbia Business School and the Research Director at the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business is seen in Toronto on March 23, 2010. JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL


It doesn't take a lot to upset Rush Limbaugh, but who knew a few pots of jam could do the trick?

Some years ago, the eminently exercisable radio host blasted away at a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that seemed to him to be an attack on the very essence of America.

Sheena Iyengar, then a young PhD student at Stanford University, had set up a table in a Menlo Park supermarket offering samples of Wilkin & Sons jam.

Story continues below advertisement

For a few hours at a time, research assistants alternated between offering samples of six and 24 flavours of jam. Every shopper who stopped at the table received a $1 coupon.

Not surprisingly, more people stopped at the table when it was laden with 24 samples. But sales went the other way: 30 per cent of shoppers who had sampled one of six jams wound up making a purchase, while only 3 per cent of those who had been presented with 24 options actually bought some jam.

In other words, the greater number of choices seemed to prompt a consumer paralysis. More was less.

To devout free marketeers like Mr. Limbaugh, the study was a sacrilege, for it undercut the dogma that people - sorry, consumers - always benefit from a greater array of choice. Indeed, many have come to equate choice with freedom itself, as if the health of a democratic society depends on an ever-expanding amount of stuff to buy. But to consumers (sorry, people) made weary by an explosion of choice over the past couple of decades, it made a sort of perfect - if counterintuitive - sense.

"The study never says you should go to the marketplace and throw out most of your choices," Ms. Iyengar explained the other day during a brief visit to Toronto from New York, where she is a professor at Columbia Business School with a cross-appointment in the psychology department. "Clearly we wouldn't want a world with only one book in it. Maybe we don't need 24 million, but it's more than that. [The study]was an opportunity to make it salient to people that there really is a cost of constantly adding more and more choices, and we should be strategic about when we add."

After Malcolm Gladwell, the godfather of bite-sized counterintuitive social science journalism, wrote about some of Ms. Iyengar's research, his agent picked her up as a client. In her debut book, The Art of Choosing, which came out this month, Ms. Iyengar notes that while the average U.S. grocery store offered 3,700 products in 1957, it now offers about 45,000. Meanwhile, the number of consumer goods available in the United States jumped from about 500,000 in 1994 to almost 700,000 by 2003. Yet research shows that consumers are perhaps more restless and certainly less satisfied than they've ever been.

Ms. Iyengar approaches choice with the seriousness of one to whom so little of it came naturally. Born in Toronto and raised in a devout Sikh neighbourhood of Elmwood Park, N.J., by parents with an arranged marriage, she grew up with a keen awareness of how religion could limit the possible choices in a life. When she was 13, her father died, leaving the family in tough financial straits. And there's something else: As a toddler, she was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa; by grade 11, she was blind, able to discern only light. A high school guidance counsellor advised her to apply to a community college and think about the possibility of living out her days on social assistance.

Story continues below advertisement

She chose a different path, and excelled at the University of Pennsylvania, where she convinced a professor to let her become one of his lab assistants, later writing a dissertation in social psychology at Stanford that won a prestigious award.

Her work touches on all aspects of our lives, from birth to death. Indeed, she writes about one study that compared American and French parents of gravely ill infants who had to be removed from life support. While the American parents had the final say on when the plug was pulled, the French parents were forced to defer to the doctors. And yet, months later, the French parents had evidently coped better with their losses than the Americans, who seemed psychologically stuck at the awful moment of their decision.

Still, as with Mr. Gladwell's books, which are consumed by curious students of pop psychology, the business community will find a lot to ponder in The Art of Choosing. Some of it will seem simplistic, like the fact that packaging of products - from similar colours of nail polish and cosmetics to brands of bottled water - can make a big difference in sales. But Ms. Iyengar goes deeper, finding compelling evidence that people may not really know what they want, or even why they want what they say they want. (This alone has the potential not just to throw marketing research into a spin, but also the very basis of economics, which seeks to study how people maximize their utility.)

And in her research on how people are emotionally primed by commercial messages, she finds some clues into one of the great mysteries of advertising: namely, that most people say they're impervious to advertising and yet marketers continue to spend billions of dollars persuading us of the superiority of their products.

While she has done consulting work for various retailers, she seems wary of the hold that marketers enjoy - suggesting at one point in The Art of Choosing that we're all about as in control of our own thoughts and lives as the poor saps whose bodies powered The Matrix.

"We're all constantly being manipulated by lots of different influences, and many of those influences we don't recognize, either because we're not consciously aware of them or because we are being subconsciously manipulated," she says. "Now, on the one hand, we might get mad about that, because we might say, 'My God, they're manipulating us against our wills.'" But, she adds, "to say that we can avoid being manipulated about everything in our lives is probably impossible, because we're being manipulated by everything. And so, really, what we have to zero in on is helping ourselves not get manipulated on the things that really matter." In one chapter, Ms. Iyengar suggests that thousands of Florida voters in the notorious U.S. federal election of 2000 ended up voting for George W. Bush simply because his name was at the top of the ballot.

Story continues below advertisement

"We've come to the point where we try to define ourselves in terms of seemingly trivial choices like: 'I'm the Coke girl,' or 'I'm the Pepsi Guy,' and that's an enormous amount of effort to exert on those kinds of choices."

The problem of modern choice is almost existential. Yes, the marketplace has offered us the ability to customize our lives to an extent unimagined by our parents and grandparents, but to many of us, it is a millstone rather than a blessing.

"We have come to believe that we have an obligation to choose, we have an obligation to make every choice an opportunity of self-expression," she notes. "So that when we're in the marketplace, asking ourselves what do we want, we're not actually asking ourselves what do we want, we're asking ourselves, 'Who I am?' - and given who I am, what do I want, and given what I want, what should I choose? And when I decide what I want to choose, I want to make sure that that's a reflection of who I am and that who I am has got to be different than who everybody else is. And that's an enormous burden to carry for every single choice."

Watch Simon Houpt's interview with Sheena Iyengar

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to