“The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar

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“The Art of Choosing” by Sheena Iyengar

A Book Review by Gary S. Smolker


The Art of Choosing” is a book worth reading.

Everyone will find something thought provoking and interesting in this book related to the process of thinking, how people think, how people choose and why people think and choose the way they do.  She also discusses the consequences of  choices people have made on their financial well-being, health, life style and relationships.

Mrs. Iyengar’s thesis is that people make themselves known by  choices they make and their well being is dependent upon their belief and ability to exercise control in different situations.

Ms. Iyengar points out that a large percentage of people have chosen to move from one place to another.

  • By 1970, two thirds of the inhabitants of major U.S. cities had been born elsewhere, as had nearly half the inhabitants of Asian cities.
  • The most recent U.S. census shows that 39 million Americans or 13 percent of the population, relocated within the past year.
  • More than half of Americans have changed their faith at least once, according to a 2009 Pew poll.
  • The fastest growing category consists of those with no religious affiliation at all.


Mrs. Iyengar’s conclusion from the above demographic facts is those facts indicate the desire of people to be themselves and are the expression and enactment of that most treasured value: freedom.

Mrs. Iyengar tells us: There is an increasing choice of identity which has social and political dimensions.

However, Ms. Iyengar does not discuss what is happening in the Arab world, in Egypt, in Libya, in Syria, in Yemen with respect to poor people rebelling against the rule of tyrants or in the United States with respect to same-sex marriages.  Albeit in both cases it appear the locus of power is shifting to the “choosing individual.”

Backers of  legalization of same sex marriages see the issue as one of personal freedom and equality. They argue: “Their love is worth the same as your love.” “Their partnership is worth the same as your partnership.” “They are equal to you. That is the driving issue.”


Ms. Iyengar is an expert in understanding how and why people choose.  In her most famous study ( “The Jam Study”) she studied whether people would purchase more jam after seeing jam displayed in a tasting booth having six selections or in a tasting booth having 24 selections of jam..

Every few hours the offering at the tasting booth was switched between offering a large assortment of jams and a small one.

Thirty percent of the people who visited the small display purchased jam.

Three percent of the people who visited the large display purchased jam.

More than six times as many people made a purchase when the smaller jam assortment was displayed.

From this study and other studies, Mrs. Iyengar concludes there is such a thing as too much choice.

When people are given a modest number of choices (4 to 6) rather than a large number (20 to 30), they are more likely to make a choice, are more comfortable with their choice, are more confident in their decision, and are happier with what they choose.

In support of this conclusion, Mrs. Iyengar reports that when Proctor & Gamble winnowed its 26 varieties of Head & Shoulders antidandruff shampoo down to fifteen, eliminating the least popular, sales jumped by ten percent.

Mrs. Iyengar also reports that  an increase in the number of mutual fund options had a significant negative impact on participation in 401(k) plans.  It was too much work figuring out how mutual funds differed from one another.

After a certain point, the amount of time and energy directed towards choosing counteracts the benefits of the choice.

Relatedly, choosing a Plan D of Medicare Health Insurance  becomes “impossible” because it requires superhuman puzzle-solving abilities: eighty six percent of seniors and over ninety percent of doctors and pharmacists agree that Part D is much too complicated.


Mrs. Iyengar reports the result of her nail polish name test.

In this test practically indistinguishable colored nail polish were put in different bottles with different names on the bottle.  Women were asked which nail polish they preferred.

Half the women in the tests were shown bottles with either the name “Adore-A-Ball” or “Ballet Slippers” on the label affixed to the bottles.

The other half of the women in the test were shown bottles labeled either “A” or “B” containing the same nail polish as shown to the other group of women.

In the group that could see the names of the colors (“Adore-A-Ball” and “Ballet Slippers”) seventy percent chose “Ballet Slippers”, the rest preferred “Adore-A-Ball.”

In the other group (the group whose bottles were labeled either “A” or “B”) sixty percent chose the bottle labeled “A”( which was actually  the “Adore-A-Ball” nail polish color), while the others were split between preferring the nail polish in the bottle labeled “B” (which was actually the “Ballet Slippers” nail polish color) and being indifferent.

The name on the label on the bottle somehow made the color look better, or at least created a feeling of difference even thought the colors were practically indistinguishable.

The “color name” had actually affected sensory perception itself.

Innovations in style and advertising change the act of purchasing from a purely practical one to a self-expressive one, making a statement about who you are and what is important to you.

We can’t avoid the fact that any choice we make may be considered a statement about who we are.


Ms. Iyengar ran test on attitude towards responsibility by asking 100 Japanese and American college students in Koyoto, Japan to write down all aspects of their life in which they would like having choice on the front sheet of a piece of paper. On the back of the sheet of paper, the students were asked to list all aspects of their life in which they would prefer not to have choice, or to have someone else choose for them.

Mrs. Iyengar reports that the front sides of the Americans’ pages were often completely filled. In contrast, the backs were, without exception, either completely blank or contained only a single item.  The Americans expressed a nearly limitless desire for choice in every dimension of their lives.

The Japanese showed a very different pattern, with not a single one wishing to have choice all or nearly all the time.  On average the Japanese students listed twice as many domains in which they did not want choice compared to domains in which they did. They often wanted someone to decide what they ate, when they woke up in the morning, and what they did in their jobs.

Americans desired personal choice in four times as many domains of life as did the Japanese.

Ms. Iyengar does not discuss the result of making people depend on you.

On that topic, Baltasar Gracian observes the following: The wise person would rather see the others needing him than thanking him  To keep them on the threshold of hope is diplomatic, to trust their gratitude is boorish; hope has a good memory, gratitude a bad one.  More is to be got from dependence than from courtesy. He who has satisfied his thirst turns his back on the well, and the orange once squeezed falls from the golden platter into the waste basket. When dependence disappears good behavior goes with it as well as respect.

Baltasar Gracian was born in 1601. As an adult he was constantly in hot water for the acts of writing and publication. He constantly disobeyed orders to conform and be silent. He aroused jealousy and ury among his superiors for his frivolous and heretical publications. Ultimately he was hounded from his post as professor of sacred scripture into supervised house arrest (he was ordered to a room where under supervision, he was forbidden to touch pen to paper, a sentence in force until his death.


In arranged marriages, marital bliss is primarily gauged by the fulfillment of duties, while for love marriages the major criterion is the intensity and duration of the emotional connection between two people.

Each narrative of marital bliss comes with its own set of expectations and its own measure of fulfillment.

Ms. Iyengar reports a survey in which it was discovered that over the long term people in arranged marriages are happier than people who marry for love.

Mrs. Iyengar quotes George Bernard Shaw’ comment about marriage inspired by love: Marriage inspired by love brings two people together ‘under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions.’

She also quotes Blaise Pascal statement: The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. — for the proposition that explaining romantic attraction is near impossible.

Blaise Pascal was born in 1623. He died in 1662.  He is regarded by many as the greatest of French prose artists. During his short life he left his mark on mathematics, physics, religious controversy and literature.

Additionally, in her book,  Ms. Iyengar did not quote or discuss  issues raised in the following comments on cause and effect, illusion, vanity and elegance published by Blaise Pascal in “Pensees” in the 1600s — pertinent to the topics discussed by Ms. Iyengar.

  • The parrot wipes its beak although it is clean.
  • It is true to say that everyone is the victim of illusion, because the ordinary person’s opinions are sound without being intellectually so, for he believes the truth to be where it is not.
  • It is not mere vanity to be elegant, because it shows that a lot of people are working for you. Your hair shows that you have a valet, a perfumer, etc., bands, thread, braaid, etc. … show… It means more than superficial show or mere accoutrement to have so many hands in one’s service. The more hands one employs, the more powerful one is.

Love and romance and compatibility are not  simple ideas or states of being.

Ms. Iyengar points out that being in a loving relationship is not simple nor does it necessarily bring happiness.

In her book, Mrs. Iyengar reports: Married couples report being less satisfied and feeling less intimate when one spouse sees the other more favorably than that spouse  sees himself or herself.

The desire to have others know us the way we know ourselves can be more powerful than the desire to be put on a pedestal.

When we see how others look at us, we want more than anything to recognize ourselves.

Ms. Iyengar does not go very far in discussing what makes us happy or what holds us back in our relationships. She does not refer to or discuss La Rochefoucauld’s observation, When we do not find peace within ourselves, it is useless to seek for it elsewhere.

Nor does she discuss studies which show that people are “held-back” from having good relationships with other people by a lack of self-confidentce, having low self-esteem, by having a sense of being a victim, by rigidly refusing to bend the rules, by following scripts which spare them from thinking, by not having the same values as the other person or people in the relationship, as well as by not knowing how to act in certain social situations.

Nor does Ms. Iyengar discuss what counts in dealing with the world.  On that topic I commend you to Baltasar Gracin’s book “the Art of Worldly Wisdom”, published in the 1600s:

  • Good things, when short, are twice as good.
  • Be slow and sure. Things are done quickly enough if done well. If just done quickly they can quickly be undone. To last an eternity requires an eternity of preparation. Only excellence counts, only achievement endures. Profound intelligence is the only foundation for immortality. What is worth much costs much. The precious metals are the heaviest.
  • Keeping friends is more important than making them. Select those that wear well – if they are new at first it is some consolation that they will become old. There is no desert like living without friends. Friendship multiplies the good of life and divides the evil. It is the sole remedy against misfortune, like fresh air to the soul.


Ms. Iyengar discusses the impact of attractiveness:

  1. The most attractive candidates receive over twice as many votes as the least attractive. About 70% of elections are won by a candidate people rate as being more competent based solely on their appearance.
  2. Elected officials are several inches taller and less likely to be bald than the population as a whole.
  3. Height and salary positively correlate, especially for men, who earn 1.5% more per additional inch of heigh.
  4. Highly attractive people of both sexes earn at least 12% more than their less attractive co-workers.
  5. Physical appearance has a greater impact even than job qualifications on whether a person will be hired following an interview.
  6. Attractive criminal defendants in criminal cases receive lighter sentences and are twice as likely to avoid jail entirely.


A human being is a complex reality with many facets.

In our culture, our conception of choice is tied up with virtues of dignity and independence.

As a result, family members cite the process of deciding when and how to take away a loved one’s choice as the most difficult part of an already agonizing experience.

The reluctance to deny someone – even if they are suffering from a degenerative brain disease – the right to choose can be so strong that it overrides even the concern for their physical well-being.

However, with longer life, people will continue to be alive after they have lost the capacity to take care of themselves without assistance and not have the mental capacity to make financial or medical decisions and choices  for themselves.

Old age may render a formerly independent person into a person totally dependent on others for protection and care.

That being the case, people who live long enough will likely end up living at home with caregivers in attendance, at assisted living facilities and/or in nursing homes.

It is important to understand that you cannot fix a person who has lost mental capacity from a degenerative brain disease.  You can’t give that person back their independence.

Becoming someone’s “conservator” (caregiver) means taking on the mental burdens of making choices for another person in addition to oneself. Choosing the “best” care facility is one of a number of a dizzying array of qualitative choices you will make.

In her book, Ms Iyengar refers to studies which prove that having choice is a basic necessity for human well being; the degree to which we are able to strike a balance of control in our life even when we are living in an assisted care facility or nursing home will have a significant bearing on our health.

In one such study, elderly patients in a nursing home who were given even trivial choices like whether and where to place a plant in their room, what night to watch a movie, were not only happier but healthier and less likely to die than patients for whom the staff made such decisions.

Within three weeks, the physical health of more than 70% of the residents from the “choiceless” group deteriorated. By contrast, over 90% of the people with choice saw their health improve. Six months later, residents who had been given greater choice were less likely to have died.

Being able to control (exercise their innate need to control) some of their environment prevented the residents from suffering the stress and anxiety that caged animals often experience.


Mrs Iyengar has passion for what she is doing and for whom she is doing it.

In her book she teaches the reader how to solve  problems and achieve opportunities through understanding the process people go through when they make a choice, how people “choose” and how people react to having choice.

She is a professor at the Columbia Business School, with a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology.

She holds an undergraduate degree from the Wharton School of Business and a doctorate in social psychology from Stanford University.


What you do depends upon what you learn.

As adults we write our lives through choice.

Choice allows us to actively participate in our own making, to be the architects of our future.

Choice is ultimately the most powerful determinant of where we go and how we get there.

A person without knowledge is in a world without light.

It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.

Each of us is as much as we know.

Reading this book will help you avoid cultural isolation and economic backwardness. It will help you understand the process you and other people go through when you and they make choices.

Happy reading.

Gary S. Smolker


All Rights Reserved

About Gary S. Smolker

PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY: No enterprise can exist for itself alone. Every successful enterprise ministers to some great need, it performs some great service, not for itself, but for others. Otherwise, it ceases to be profitable and ceases to exist. Imagination, open mindedness and flexibility are the most important factors in unlocking potential. Those who embrace innovation, improvisation, continuous learning, time management, are action oriented, high energy, passionate, creative, purposeful and intense individuals are best equipped to succeed. We all have ideas and the ability to make progress by sharing information and our ideas and also by changing our ideas when appropriate. We should always be on the lookout for teaching and mentoring moments. We hold time like water in our hands; however tightly we clench our fingers, it drips away. But, if it falls on a seed, a seed may grow to become something that will have a positive social impact. PERSONAL INTERESTS: I have a passion to learn, to innovate, to lead, to mentor and to teach. I seek to write things worth reading and want to do things worth writing about. I enjoy (a) driving a fast car, (b) having intense conversations (c) teaching/mentoring, (d) reading and (e) being involved in productive activity. PERSONAL: I believe in cultivating and backing passionate people, innovation, and old fashioned good ideas. I love making human connections and spreading good ideas. I am strongly motivated to achieve in situations in which independence of thought and action are called for. PERSONAL GOALS: I want to live life vibrantly, to be as sharp as a tack until my last breath and to change the world by being me. My personal goal is to be fully engaged in life, to lead by example, to set high standards and to continue to amass firsthand experience and knowledge in all that interests me. PERSONALITY: I love fun and mischief. I relish absurdity. I have an irreverent, facetious and satiric disposition. I dread boredom. I have spent a lifetime reading. I have no bias against people who have lived successful and/or complicated lives. I write to release tension, to get things off my chest. SOCIAL MEDIA: I post articles on the "Gary S. Smolker Idea Exchange" blog at www.garysmolker.wordpress.com, and "Dude's Guide to Women's Shoes" at www.dudesguidetowomensshoes.com. I also post images and comments on Instagram @garyspassion. CONTACT INFORMATION: Gary Smolker, Smolker Law Firm, 16055 Ventura Blvd., Ste 525, Encino, California, 91436-2609, USA. Phone 1-818-788-7290, e-mail GSmolker@aol.com.

Posted on June 27, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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