Sheena Iyengar This Columbia Business School professor has revolution-
ized how we think about choice by askingone question: Is more always better?
BY BARBARA PALMER
You could say that Sheena Iyengar,who teaches leadershipandglobalization at Columbia Business
School, was born to think about choice. Iyengar, who presented a PCMA Masters Series session on
“The Art of Choosing,” is the daughter of parents who emi- grated from India. As a Sikh-American growing up first in Queens and then in New Jersey, Iyengar’s dual identity meant “that I was constantly going back and forth between two very different cultures,” she said. “At home I was a Sikh, and that is a pretty fundamentalist religious faith—there were lots of rules. On the other hand, I went to an American school, which was all abouthowyou should view everythingthe way you think best. And I constantly had to deal with the conflict of who had the right ideas about choice.” Iyengar’s research into choice also began early, while she was
an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania—although Iyengar says she didn’t realize shewas studying choice at the time. While taking a course withpsychologistMartin Seligman, Iyengar looked atwhethermembers of fundamentalist religious faiths— who had fewer choices—would be more prone to depression. “I found that the oppositewas true,” she said. At Stanford University, where Iyengar earned a Ph.D. in social psychology, she conducted an experiment that’s become so famous that she often hears it quoted back to her—by people who have no clue that it was her original research. In the “Jam Study,” Iyengar found that grocery-store shoppers who were offered a coupon for one of six different jams were more likely to buy a jar than if they were offered a coupon good for one of 17 jams. When Iyengar applied the research model to invest- ment plans, she discovered “the 401(k) effect”: Givingpeople more choices actually makes them save less. “People are more attracted to a lot of choice,” Iyengar said,
“but when it comes to makinga choice, they are more likely to [do so] if they have fewer options [rather] than more.” Since then, Iyengar has become a leading expert on choice by
continuing to challenge an assumption that runs through the history of economics, philosophy, psychology, management, and a host of other disciplines: that choice is always a good thing. Convene recently spoke with Iyengar about how her research applies to topics includingculture, adversity, and conference design.
66 pcma convene February 2011
Did it seem to you that choice was a wide-open field when you started looking at it? Well, what was interestingabout choice is that, in some ways, it has been very heavily studied if you think about political lead- ers like Thomas Jefferson, or philosophers like [John] Locke or [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau. Certainly, there has been a long- standing dialogue about choice that started in the Enlightenment period.We also had a longstanding dialogue about choice in economics withAdamSmith. In psychology, you had a dialogue about choice that came out of judgment and decision-making, as well as out of basic theories onhumanmotivation. The com- mon thread, though, that ran across all of these ideas, was that choice was always good and that more of it was always better. And what I did, really, was ask the question of whether there
were times when choice was not good. Or even more dramatic: That not having a choice was better than havinga choice. And then the second question was: Are there times when we are better off when we have less choice than when we have more?
What other things do people think they know about choice that turn out not to be so clear-cut? I’d say that what people fail to recognize is that choice has its limitations. It is not the solution to all problems. And then, if I were to turn that around and not be so negative and turn that into a lesson, I would say that one of the things that we fail to recognize is that to get the most out of choice, you have to be choosy about choosing.
Do you mean about what kinds of things we choose, or how we make choices, or both of those things? I mean both.
Your studies on cultural differences around the perceptions about choice between Americans, Asians, and Indians have also gotten a lot of attention. To motivate an American employee, you give them more and more choice. But that same increase in choice could actually be viewed in a very negative way by employees in Japan or China, who might actually construe being given a lot of choice by their boss as the boss saying, “Look, I do notknowwhat Iamdoing.”