When Choice Means Different Things to Different People: Sheena Iyengar on Sources of Control
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
"It depends on how you define control. If you define control as ‘I will entirely write my script,’ that could be one way of thinking of having control. Another way to think about having control is to say ‘Look I was given this script, and I executed it with great aplomb.’ And there’s nothing to say that that means you don’t have control, it’s just a different kind of control."
Sheena Iyengar, a business professor at Columbia University and author of The Art of Choosing, has come to view cultural and religious rules as “life scripts.” She says they are empowering rather than stifling. In Krista’s interview with her earlier this year, Sheena Iyengar describes her journey to this revelation.
In the audio above (download mp3), she starts by describing a study that shows that religious followers are less depressed than atheists. Sheena Iyengar then talks about another study that demonstrates most Asian children are more motivated and performed tasks better when their mothers made choices for them, whereas the converse is true for most Anglo-American children: they were more motivated if they were able to choose the task themselves.
And, she explains that her interest in examining culture’s role in choice was especially informed by her own Sikh background.
Here, for example, she discusses whether an arranged marriage, such as that of her parents, is in fact devoid of choice. You can listen to the clip to the left (or download the mp3) of this portion of their conversation as well, and then share with us examples of how your culture has influenced your view of choice.
Arranged Marriage: An Expert on Choice Speaks Across Cultures
Shubha Bala, associate producer
When I was 11, I bombarded my uncle with questions while we sat on the floor going through photos and letters from Indian families seeking a marriage arrangement between him and their daughters. At some point I naively asked, “But won’t you want to meet all the women before deciding on the best one?”
Interview upon interview, Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing and a business professor at Columbia University, attributed her own curiosity around choice to her Sikh parents’ arranged marriage. But her interviewers often stopped short of asking her for more detail.
Sometimes there is an assumption that an arranged marriage represents an absence of choice; but, for many Indians, the modern arranged marriage still includes choice but with a collective framework. At least that’s my experience as a second-generation Indian who has had many personal discussions about this subject. For example, I want to choose the best husband for me, but some aunts think that I should include what is best for my parents, grandparents, and siblings.
Most Indians are touched by arranged marriages in some form or the other. So, although The New York Times and Express India articles both describe one of Sheena Iyengar’s experiments, which looks at cultural differences of choice, the Times only states the facts whereas Express India takes the story further by asking her opinion:
"Iyengar does not privilege either of these choices over the other; collective action, after all, can be as inspiring and purposeful as Gandhi’s Salt March to Dandi, while tales of inspired individualism abound as well. ‘Both extreme ends of the spectrum are problematic, but different places along the continuum have their own particular benefits,’ she says.
To some extent, even India Abroad's feature approaches things from a collective choice lens. Their interview of Sheena Iyengar focused on her mother and family as much as on her.
Krista and I discussed this approach as I briefed her for today’s interview with Sheena Iyengar; I hope we can delve more deeply into her personal experiences while approaching the conversation from multiple cultural lenses. By the way, you can follow the interview on Twitter as we live-tweet (@softweets) the gems of the conversation at 2 p.m. Central today.
As for my uncle, he told me that after vetting the photos and letters for a handful of women to meet face-to-face, he was sure he would meet one, feel immediate love, and have no choice but to throw away the rest.
Finding Freedom within Chosen Constraints
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
"Is my life any different since I became a Jesuit? Oh, yes…The rules of obedience, from the structure of the day to this assignment at the Vatican, have put me under constraints I did not have before, but they’re constraints of my choosing, which, like the rules of a sonnet, give me a framework to create a wonderfully fulfilled life."
These lines from Brother Guy Consolmagno’s book, Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist, and his ideas about constraints being a catalyst for greater happiness echo the work of Sheena Iyengar, a business school professor and author of The Art of Choosing. Ms. Iyengar was born legally blind and grew up in a traditional Sikh family in the United States — both to which she attributes her enduring fascination with choice, limits, and possibilities.
She says she’s always been aware of the tension between honoring traditions and expressing individual preferences. In a recent interview, Iyengar discussed finding a sweet spot between choices and limits:
"I think that choice can be beautiful. It’s really the tool that enables us to create. But if it’s allowed to run wild, if we don’t have any direction and it doesn’t have any limits we can become really undirected…if you look around us today with the barrage of both information and choices we have…you’re seeing people struggling to hold on to focus."
Iyengar’s research suggests that we’re happier and feel more satisfied with our choices when we have fewer options. And, in a recent post on Sightings, theologian Martin Marty cited her work as it relates to “choice in religion.”
As I consider Iyengar’s ideas about “the art of choosing” and Brother Guy’s reflections on his happily constrained monastic life, I’m reminded of an iconic passage from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar. Published in the early 1960s, the book’s bright college-aged protagonist envisions her future life choices — motherhood, career, travel — as plump figs on a tree. She can’t choose among these inviting figs and so she’s paralyzed:
"I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."
For Plath’s heroine, choosing means shutting down possibilities. It’s a kind of death. I relate to this bleak way of experiencing choice as deprivation, particularly when I’m making financial decisions and my resources are constrained.
I wonder how you manage choice-making in your own life. Do constraints help? Does it matter if you’ve chosen the constraint or if it’s imposed on you? What kinds of constraints have you adopted? I look forward to reading your comments.
(The image above is a painting by Ivette Guzmán-Zavala, which was inspired by Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar.)