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Malcolm Gladwell: Do More Choices Make Us Happier?

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Malcolm Gladwell: Do More Choices Make Us Happier?

Malcolm Gladwell: Do More Choices Make Us Happier?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today decisions, ideas about how we make them and why we tend to agonize over them because at some point, we all have to make a decision about something. It can be as trivial as picking out a restaurant.

MALCOLM GLADWELL: Well, I avoid Yelp for this very reason. I've never...

RAZ: Don't look at it.

GLADWELL: ...Looked at Yelp.

RAZ: This is Malcolm Gladwell, by the way.

GLADWELL: Hi.

RAZ: Malcolm Gladwell is - well, you know who he is - writer, podcast host, Yelp hater.

GLADWELL: I know about it. Others talk about it.

RAZ: Yeah, this happens to me.

GLADWELL: I have never opened it.

RAZ: Don't do it.

GLADWELL: I won't do it.

RAZ: And to Malcolm this feels like a kind of freedom. He doesn't have to scroll through hundreds and hundreds of options on where to eat dinner because the truth is there's such a thing as too much choice. So - OK, so can I ask you a question about Howard Moskowitz?

GLADWELL: Yes. Yes. Famous Howard.

RAZ: OK, so who was he?

GLADWELL: Howard Moskowitz is a psychophysicist. So psychophysicists are people who are in the business of measuring things. And he might be the greatest character I ever hung out with.

RAZ: Wow.

GLADWELL: He was short and round and in the best possible way exuberantly Jewish. You know, full of yiddishisms (ph) and curiosity. I mean, because one of the things that I - when I wrote about him, he's responsible for kind of uncovering truth about how human beings make decisions.

RAZ: Howard Moskowitz uncovered that truth while working on something kind of unexpected. Malcolm Gladwell picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GLADWELL: Howard graduated with his doctorate from Harvard and he set up a little consulting shop in White Plains, N.Y. And one of his first clients was - this is many years ago, back in the early '70s. One of his first clients was Pepsi. And Pepsi came to Howard and they said, you know, we - there's this new thing called aspartame, and we would like to make Diet Pepsi. And we'd like you to figure out how much aspartame we should put in each can of Diet Pepsi in order to have the perfect drink. Now, that sounds like an incredibly straightforward question to answer. And that's what Howard thought because Pepsi told him, look, we're working with a band between 8 and 12 percent. Anything below 8 percent sweetness is not sweet enough. Anything above 12 percent sweetness is too sweet. We want to know - what's the sweet spot between 8 and 12?

Now, if I gave you this problem to do, you would all say it's very simple. What we do is you make up a big experimental batch of Pepsi at every degree of sweetness - 8 percent, 8.1, 8.2, 8.3, all the way up to 12 - and we try this out with thousands of people. And we plot the results on a curve, and we take the most popular concentration, right? Really simple. Howard does the experiment and he gets the data back and he plots it on a curve. And all of a sudden he realizes it's not a nice bell curve. In fact, the data doesn't make any sense. It's a mess. It's all over the place.

And what Howard discovers when he does that work for them is that people's answers do not coalesce around a single solution. There are some people who like their Diet Pepsi really sweet and some who don't like it sweet at all. And they're not part of some kind of continuum. They are at completely different places in the world of diet colas, in the world of sweetness. And so he says, look, we've been operating under a paradigm which says there is a perfect Diet Pepsi. And he says, that's wrong. There are only perfect Diet Pepsis.

RAZ: But Pepsi didn't buy this idea that there could be more than one perfect product and neither did anyone else in the food industry. But that didn't stop Howard Moskowitz from talking about it for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GLADWELL: He was obsessed with it. And finally he had a breakthrough. Campbell's Soup. Campbell's made Prego, and Prego in the early '80s was struggling next to Ragu, which was the dominant spaghetti sauce of the '70s and '80s. So they came to Howard and they said, fix us. And Howard looked at their product line and he said, what you have is a dead tomato society. So he said, this is what I want to do. And he got together with the Campbell's soup kitchen and he made 45 varieties of spaghetti sauce. And he varied them according to every conceivable way that you can vary tomato sauce - by sweetness, by level of garlic, by tartness, by sourness, by tomatoeyness (ph), by visible solids - my favorite term in the...

(LAUGHTER)

GLADWELL: In the spaghetti sauce business. Every conceivable way you can vary spaghetti sauce he varied spaghetti sauce. And sure enough, if you sit down and you analyze these - all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy. And there are people who like it extra chunky. And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket you would not find extra chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard and they said, are you telling me that one-third of Americans crave extra chunky spaghetti sauce and yet no one is servicing their needs? And he said yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GLADWELL: And Prego then went back and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce and came out with a line of extra chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti sauce business in this country. And over the next 10 years, they made $600 million off their line of extra chunky sauces.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: I mean, was the idea behind having many pasta sauces or many different kinds of Pepsis - was the idea behind that that if you gave people lots of choices, they'd be happier?

GLADWELL: I don't know. So I'm not sure that even Howard would go that far. I think what he would say is that for too long people in positions of authority in places like the food industry assumed it was their job to define what pasta sauce was or what diet cola was and to educate the rest of us to the point where we agree with them. And what Howard was saying was that's wrong. That's backwards. That if you want to discover what pasta sauce is, you have to listen to the people who are eating pasta sauce and let their own particular idiosyncrasies be your guide.

That's a separate question from the question of whether multiple choices make you happier. I think what he was perhaps thinking of is that you enter the supermarket knowing that you are someone who likes spicy pasta sauce, and now there's spicy pasta sauce for you, and you almost kind of ignore all the other choices. That all I've done is I've done a much better job of delivering to you something that conforms with your own taste.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GLADWELL: People don't know what they want, right? As Howard loves to say, the mind knows not what the tongue wants.

(LAUGHTER)

GLADWELL: It's a mystery. And a critically important step in understanding our own desires and taste is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want deep down. If I asked all you, for example, in this room what you want in a coffee, you know what you would say? Every one of you would say I want a dark, rich, hearty roast. It's what people always say when you ask them what they want in a coffee. What do you like? Dark, rich, hearty roast.

(LAUGHTER)

GLADWELL: What percentage of you actually like a dark, rich, hearty roast? According to Howard, somewhere between 25 and 27 percent of you. Most of you like milky, weak coffee.

(LAUGHTER)

GLADWELL: But you will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want that I want a milky, weak coffee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Wow. Most people want milky, weak coffee. I did not know that. I mean - but wouldn't you agree that, like, your own world is - your own personal life is just so much better today because you can pick among many different kinds of coffees, right? I mean, I kind of feel that way, right?

GLADWELL: I do but I - but where I think the psychologists who study choice are really right is when they move beyond some of these more prosaic consumer choices into things like dating. So where - now you have dating marketplaces in urban centers that are - where choice is essentially infinite. And I think that is a problem. There is a case where I do not think the increased choice is bringing happiness. I think it's just creating a kind of endless treadmill of choice. But I just don't think it's as simple as it's always better to have less choice.

RAZ: But I think we have this assumption that a choice has consequences, right? Like, you remember those choose your adventure books? You know, if you chose, you know, to go to page nine, you might die off a cliff. But if you went to page 12, you would go to Candy Land. You know, I mean, the choices...

GLADWELL: Yeah, but choices - they have consequences but not predictable consequences. That's my point. Yes, they have consequences, but you can't know beforehand, so stop worrying about it.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, easy for you to say, right? Do you know...

GLADWELL: No, easy for all of us to say. It's a very - you just flip the switch in your head. It doesn't matter.

RAZ: So are you telling me you are always the person who picks the right line at the supermarket?

GLADWELL: No, I didn't even worry about it. I just, like, get into a line, stop worrying about it, and, you know, daydream happily while you wait.

RAZ: What if you get into the line - right? - you get into a line and you look at the last person in the line that you didn't choose. And then you see, like, four people get behind that person and then they end up checking out before you even get to the register. Doesn't that drive you crazy?

GLADWELL: (Laughter) I cannot help you. I can't help you. You're too far gone for me. We're - we occupy different universes, you and. I?

RAZ: But I think that I reflect the sensibility of most people. Like, choice in decision-making is actually hard, right? I mean, don't you ever agonize over decision-making at all?

GLADWELL: Yeah, not those kinds of decisions. So I'm astonished by the way that Americans agonize about their college decisions. And the reason I find it so preposterous is that there is an assumption that the thing that makes an education good or bad is knowable beforehand. I would have thought that the ingredients of a good education are largely unknowable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLADWELL: The most important thing about my education at the University of Toronto was the fact that I met a guy named Tom Connell, and I hung out with Tom and had a million fantastic conversations with Tom and emerged from university a vastly wiser and more interesting person.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLADWELL: There is not - in a million years I would - how would I have known whether Tom was going to be there? It's also pointless because most universities, the question of whether you get a good education is up to you, not up to the university. So I think a lot of these choice words are just based on this preposterous notion of the consumer as a passive recipient of prepackaged experiences, and most of life is not prepackaged.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Well, except for spaghetti sauce, and even that's not always an easy decision.

GLADWELL: I haven't counted recently, but at one point, I think I went into a grocery store and discovered 36 different varieties within one brand.

RAZ: So if you had to - just as a thought experiment - if you had to pick, would you go for a smooth pasta sauce or a zesty or extra chunky or spicy?

GLADWELL: What I've discovered is it's actually much more important about how you do the pasta than how you do the pasta sauce.

RAZ: So what do you do, like elbow and rigatoni and ziti and linguine and angel hair...

GLADWELL: No, no, no, it's how you cook it.

RAZ: Yeah, but what do you decide? Which one do you make?

GLADWELL: Oh, I - you know, does it matter? I mean, they seem all very similar to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Malcolm Gladwell. You can hear all of his talks at ted.com. By the way, check out his awesome podcast. It's called "Revisionist History." On the show today, ideas about decisions, the easy ones and the agonizing ones. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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