By: Patrick L. Sullivan
The young Sheena said she wanted to be a pilot, and the teacher was taken aback.
Iyengar had begun to lose her sight at age 3, from a disease called retinitis pigmentosa. By grade six she could no longer read, and by high school she was blind.
“In order to be a pilot, I would have to put my eyes to it,” she said.
Iyengar shared this story with the capacity crowd attending the Salisbury Forum at The Hotchkiss School on Friday, Sept. 7.
Iyengar went on to become the first S.T. Lee Professor of Business in the Management Division at the Columbia Business School and the research director at the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business, also at Columbia.
Iyengar has done extensive research on how people can, do and should make choices. She began her remarks by saying that, when making choices, people need to be aware of their limitations.
In her case, her blindness has led to some startling assumptions from other people. She told stories about her experiences. As a college student in Spain, for example, she had “all sorts of random people handing me money for lottery tickets. Apparently, the blind had cornered the market on lottery tickets.”
In Japan, people tried to get her to give them “magical massages.”
A high school guidance counselor told her, “Never mind, you’ll be on Social Security.”
But a music teacher didn’t seem to consider her blindness to be a problem, and taught her to play the clarinet. She only abandoned the instrument “because I wasn’t very good.”
As she spoke, a photograph of Ray Charles appeared on the screen behind her.
A career in research
In college, she became interested in social psychology, and when she asked a professor for a summer job, there was a long pause.
Then the professor started pounding the desk and shouting “I’ve got it!”
The professor was conducting a study in which subjects were told embarrassing things, and he wondered if the embarrrassment might be lessened if the person making the remarks — such as “You smell funny” — couldn’t see the subjects.
“For the record,” Iyengar said, “they were just as embarrassed.”
That was the start of her research career, and of her understanding of choice.
“I was able to take advantage of choices, because people kept reminding me of my limitations.”
She set out the basic thought process around the choices people make: “I know what I want, so I choose it, find it and then I’m happy.”
But are people likely to find happiness with more choices?
In one study, young men were shown photos of two attractive women, a blonde and a brunette, and asked which one was more attractive. An hour later they were shown the woman they had chosen and were asked why they picked her photo.
But the researchers showed them the opposite of the woman they had picked — and most of the test subjects didn’t notice. “Seventy percent didn’t notice the sleight of hand, and when they were asked about their choice they said something like, ‘I like blondes.’”
Another survey asked recent college graduates looking for work about what was important in the job they sought. The study began in May and ran through September, and the results varied widely from start to finish.
“It turned out the people who deluded themselves were the happiest,” said Iyengar. “It’s like grandmother’s old saying: Happy people want what they get.”
I am what I choose
Iyengar said Americans tend to associate choice with freedom, and are keenly aware that what they choose sends a message to others about their identity. “So it’s not just what do I want, but who am I?”
Sometimes the process gets confusing and produces some odd results.
Iyengar said that when the first iPhones came out, she went and stood in a very long line for hours to get one for her husband, who wanted the black version.
There were only two options: white and black. After hours of waiting, Iyengar made it to the front of the line, and had just given the order to the sales clerk when her husband appeared — and asked for the white iPhone instead.
Because he had read on the Internet that everybody was getting the black version.
“Choice is not a solitary activity,” said Iyengar. “Choice is communication. It sends a message — I’m unique but you can still relate to me because I’m unique, not an outcast.
“We aspire to be unique but want to be understood,” she continued. “We want to stand out, but not in a way that makes us a glaring and lonely minority.”
Iyengar said that Americans face an “explosion of choices.” She cited statistics: In 1949, the typical grocery store stocked 3,700 items. In 2012, a grocery store has on average 40,000 items.
When Iyengar was a graduate student at Stanford, she enjoyed going to Draeger’s market in Menlo Park, Calif. “I loved to go there and marvel at the variety, but I wondered why I never bought anything.”
She set up an experiment, with the cooperation of the management. Draeger’s had an entire wall of jams, dozens of different brands and flavors. Two tasting booths were set up — one with six choices, and one with 24. Both booths offered shoppers a coupon for $1 off a jar of jam.
Iyengar said that while more people stopped to look at the 24-jam display, only 3 percent took a coupon and bought something.
Fewer people stopped at the six-jam booth, but 30 percent of them made a purchase.
Shoppers were “more likely to make a choice — with fewer choices.”
She cited George Miller’s 1956 paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.”
The general idea is that the number of objects an average human can hold in the working memory is seven, with a margin of two on either side.
“It’s the basic limitation of our minds” Iyengar said. “Beyond seven, information starts to crumble away.
“Too many choices and we procrastinate. And this has a negative effect even on important things.”
Such as retirement funds. A financial company was curious why employee participation was not higher, especially with a wide range of plans for retirement savings.
Iyengar said a study found when there were more choices, participation decreased, as did the quality of the participation (with people opting for low-yield money market accounts, as opposed to equities) and the level of satisfaction.
“You need a more methodical approach when there are more choices,” she said.
Another study looked at a custom car program, in which customers were asked to make 60 decisions about their vehicle, ranging from four different steering wheels to 56 possibilities for exterior paint.
When customers started the process at the “shallow end “ — the fewer number of choices — they tended to complete the entire process.
But when they started at the “deep end” — 56 colors — they got discouraged and went with the default option more often.
“The shallows were learning how to choose as they went along. They were more engaged in putting the package together,” Iyengar said.
“We believe that when a choice is available it is our duty as free individuals to choose what we want.”
Of life, and death
But what happens when there is no good choice?
Iyengar talked about a study of parents in France and the United States whose infants were born with cerebral anoxia — a lack of oxygen to the brain.
The choice: Either take the child off life support knowing it would die in matter of hours. Or keep the child on life support, in which case it would either die in a matter of days or live indefinitely in a vegetative state.
Iyengar said that all of the babies removed from life support died. In France, doctors make the decision although the parents can override. But in the United States, the parents make the decision.
One year later the American parents were more negative about the experience than the French.
“The French tended to say things like ‘He taught us so much while he was here’ while the American parents asked ‘What if?” or blamed themselves for ‘playing a part in an execution.’”
Yet when the American parents were asked if they would rather have the doctor make the decision they overwhelmingly said no.
Iyengar said people “focus too much on the possibilities” of choice.
“We should be choosy about choosing, be prepared to let go of choices if they don’t serve us well.”