Saturday, October 19, 2013


Sheena Iyengar appeared on Fareed Zakaria's tv show" GPS" and got my attention. The subconscious mind programs the majority of our decisions.  This past two years have presented me with many book versions of this theme.

In her book, "The Art of Choosing" Sheena uses mute animals to make a point.  In a zoo,  animals are fed and sheltered with no need to be anxious.  They also have no need to choose.  In their natural state animals make a lot of choices and strive to be safe. In zoos with a lack of choice their longevity and fertility are negatively affected.  Studies have shown that when people are given choices that let them control parts of their lives they react positively.

Sheena Iyengar (who is blind, but does indeed have strong visualization skills) spends a lot of her book demonstrating that the subconscious which she labels "automatic" does control a lot of our decisions that we are totally unaware of.  She points out that our "reflective" conscious mind does have some control.  Our mind has developed short cuts that automatically make decisions in a seamless manner.  We can become aware of many of these shortcuts, but it is a continual battle.

The idea of "choice" has a cultural context.  In the western world, particularly the United States it is something that is precious and the more choices we have the better.  The author makes a point going back to her parents' Sikh wedding which was ritualized and most critically, arranged.  Most in Western culture think choosing marriage partners for love is the superior way, but some studies have shown that in fact arranged marriages can have happier outcomes than romantic choices.

At another stage she points out life and death decisions have shifted in our culture from an authoritarian expert  (eg doctor)  to those most directly involved.  There is regret on all sides for painful decisions, but some people are comforted that it wasn't their decision.  In fact in lots of matters we defer our decisions to experts because we are confused and/or don't want the responsibility.  Fashion is one example she brings up with a multitude of colours chosen by "experts".

In our choices we will automatically have many made for us, but we can choose which decisions we want to reflect on.  For some choices we might want to rely on the advice of a trusted contact.  An example given on the tv show was that Barrack Obama has elected to simplify his choice of what suit to wear by limiting it to two, one black and one blue.  Saves his energy for more important decisions.

The number 7 is a critical point in that we can usually handle up to 7 items to choose from, but beyond that we have difficulties in weighing options particularly if they are very similar.  Giving a consumer too many choices can actually cut sales or prolong restaurant selections.

Sheena recognizes that we can apply science (in the sense of using our reasoning powers) to our most important decisions, but in fact we have to decide where we want to make the effort.  That is where the art comes in.  One problem we now have is that there are so many desirable choices that we regret even a good choice that might have been even better.  We also can spend so much time sorting through options that we lose time to enjoy our choice.

I am conscious that I seem attracted to books that deal with how the subconscious mechanisms control us and inflict a good number of those on readers willing to put up with them.  An underlying concern is free will--do we actually have any?  An elusive question, but I like to think that writers like Sheena Iyengar  give us tools to exercise free will.

You can watch Dr Sheena Iyengar with a presentation on TED

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