Sheena Iyengar: What our choices say about who we are : Hidden Brain An abundance of choices is a good thing, right? In the United States, where choice is often equated with freedom and control, the answer tends to be a resounding 'yes.' But researchers say the relationship between choice and happiness isn't always so clear-cut. This week, we talk with psychologist Sheena Iyengar about making better decisions, and how she's thinking about the relationship between choices and control during the coronavirus pandemic.
NPR logo

The Choices Before Us: Can Fewer Options Lead To Better Decisions?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/850104564/850256663" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Choices Before Us: Can Fewer Options Lead To Better Decisions?

The Choices Before Us: Can Fewer Options Lead To Better Decisions?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/850104564/850256663" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. From the moment you get up in the morning, your brain is making choices. Do you hit the snooze button? Do you hit it a second time? For breakfast, are you going to have cereal or eggs, coffee or tea?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Every day, you grapple with hundreds of choices. To many people, an abundance of options is a good thing. It signifies freedom and having control. You get to choose whether to spend your Saturday at a movie or at a baseball game. You decide whether to try the new restaurant down the block or stay in and cook. It's your call whether to take the job with the higher pay or the one with better work-life balance. But in recent months, with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of choices in our lives has suddenly shrunk dramatically. And going to a grocery store has become the equivalent of a special outing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Imagine looking this good for who? Walmart. Looking this good for what? For Walmart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The constraints on our choices have been very hard. Millions of people are out of work and millions more feel their lives are precarious. If we had a choice to swiftly go back to the old normal, we'd jump at it. But with all this hardship, many people also report a new relationship to the limit of things they do have.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Being homebound has given me the opportunity to not feel so rushed to stick to the rigid schedule that my family's used to.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I started to notice that I seem to be enjoying the mundane tasks of daily life a lot more than I used to now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Take the leaves out of my flower beds, make chocolate chip cookies with my child.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The other night, I actually enjoyed just doing the dishes, kind of spacing out into that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Would we be better off when our regular lives resumed if we had fewer choices? Why do we crave so many options of ice cream, cars and vacation destinations? This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, what our choices say about us, why we fail to understand the pernicious effect of too many choices and how to make choices more wisely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Sheena Iyengar is a psychologist at Columbia University. She's best known for a bold idea that many people find surprising - having more options doesn't always lead to better or happier decisions. In her book, "The Art Of Choosing," she explores how history, culture and psychology shape the way we think about making choices. Sheena Iyengar, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

SHEENA IYENGAR: Thank you. It's wonderful to be here.

VEDANTAM: A number of psychological studies have examined the well-being and motivation of people when they get to make choices about what they do. What have these studies generally found about the effects that choice and autonomy have on what's called intrinsic motivation?

IYENGAR: There is a wealth of studies that have been done with both animals and humans that show that when we have a feeling of control or a sense of autonomy over our lives, this makes us strive more, so we're more intrinsically motivated. It makes us healthier. It makes us happier - I mean, just lots of benefits when it comes to psychological and physical well-being.

VEDANTAM: There's a famous study that looked at British bureaucrats that examined the differences in health between those who got to make decisions for others who were the bosses and those who had to follow orders, people who were underlings. What did the study find, Sheena?

IYENGAR: The people that end up making more choices or having more autonomy and control over their schedules by and large were less likely to suffer from heart disease or strokes and lived longer lives. People who seemingly had less to worry about because all the choices were made for them, they were simply following orders, tended to be more stressed out and suffered more physical consequences for it.

VEDANTAM: There are studies that show that giving people even trivial or superficial choices can improve their health. Ellen Langer and Judy Rodin ran a remarkable study at a nursing home in Connecticut many years ago. Can you describe that study and tell me what it found?

IYENGAR: If you take people in a nursing home and you give them trivial choices, like would you like a plant in the room, would you like to decide which night you watched the movie, you know, really trivial choices, it turns out that they end up having better health, and they live longer was essentially what they found. And you see these kinds of effects in all kinds of ways, right? If you give children a choice of when they're going to do their assignment, they spend more time on it. They're more motivated to do it. If you go into a restaurant that has higher ceilings, it gives you more of the illusion of freedom or a sense of space and liberty. Again, people are happier.

VEDANTAM: When you step back and look at the value of having choices, you've identified sort of three broad drivers that make choice valuable to have in our lives. What are those three drivers, Sheena?

IYENGAR: I think choice plays three fundamental functions for us. First, it's just psychologically motivating. We feel happy when we have the feeling that we have autonomy or some kind of control. That's universal. The second is that compared to any other species on the planet, we can take a bunch of options and say, you know, which one is better or worse and make trade-offs. The function it plays is it enables us to engage in judgment, decision-making. The third function that choice makes is it's because of our ability to choose that we're able to create new choices. We're able to imagine a future and turn that imagination into choices that we can now make.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Having the freedom to imagine choices and to make those choices is a good thing. But is there a point at which we can have too much of this good thing? Many years ago, Sheena was on a plane. The passenger sitting next to her excitedly told her about a study she had read that had to do with jam. What the passenger didn't know was that Sheena had conducted that study herself.

IYENGAR: Lots of people do describe the jam study to me, and they often refer to it as the jam study. I did that study in the 1990s. There was this upscale grocery store called Draeger's, which specialized in offering people lots and lots of choice. It had, like, 250 different types of mustards, vinegars, mayonnaises and over 500 different types of fruits and vegetables. In discussions with the manager, I asked the store manager as to whether this model of offering people all this choice really worked. And after a series of discussions, we decided to do a little experiment, which has now been dubbed the jam study.

So we set up a tasting booth where we put out six different flavors of jam or 24 different flavors of jam near the entrance of the store. And we looked at two things. First, in which case were people more likely to stop and sample some jam? It turned out more people stopped when they were 24 on display - 60% versus 40%. And then we looked at in which case were people more likely to buy a jar of jam? And it turned out that more people were likely to buy a jar of jam when they encountered six than when they encountered 24.

VEDANTAM: So, again, the experiment had two conditions. In one, the researchers set up a table with six jams; in another, they had 24. More people stopped at the jam display when there were more options, but more people actually bought jam when there were fewer options.

IYENGAR: And this was really the first documentation that even though people are more attracted to having more choices, when it comes down to making a choice, they're more likely to make a choice when they have less than when they have more.

VEDANTAM: I want to stay a moment with sort of the evolution of the idea after you did the jam study. You got a call from the Vanguard Group, which is one of the largest mutual fund companies in the world. And they were looking at some 900,000 employees at various companies, and they were looking at the number of people who were signing up to save for their retirement and 401(k) plans. And they were finding that as they provided more options to people, more mutual fund options, the number of people who were signing up to save for retirement was dropping. Tell me about the study you did with them and what it found.

IYENGAR: So it was about 900,000 people. They were all in the United States, about 650 different institutions. And these companies ranged in size from a few hundred up to about 100,000 employees. They were all carrying Vanguard. That is a common factor across all of them. But, essentially, what we found was that these plans offered people anywhere from two to roughly 60 options. And what we found was that as plans offered people more options, participation rates dropped. And so the more choices you gave people, the lower the participation rates. And by the way, these are all cases where employees could expect a match from their employers. So they were literally giving up free money by not participating.

When we looked at people who actually did participate, who actually made the choice, even there we found that giving people more choices didn't actually make them better choosers. It turned out that the more choices we gave them, the more likely they were to avoid investing in equities and put more of their money in bonds and money markets. And, you know, most of the time, when you're talking about long-term financial well-being, you really shouldn't be avoiding equities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Vanguard wasn't the only company interested in questions of choice. Corporations seized on the idea that having fewer options could boost sales. Procter and Gamble reduced the number of options of their anti-dandruff shampoo and saw sales surge. It was a counterintuitive pivot in a culture where the abundance of choice was seen as an inherent good. There was another domain where Sheena found that having more choices didn't turn out the way people expected. As an undergraduate, she had spent time in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Thousands of East Germans came across the border today, perhaps more than a hundred thousand, so many that border police...

IYENGAR: I was fascinated by Berlin, and I was there when the wall fell and participated in all the big partying and, you know, everybody's partying and hugging each other. And this was a moment where freedom had prevailed. it was a big deal.

VEDANTAM: But when Sheena went back to Germany in the early 2000s, she found the euphoria had worn off.

IYENGAR: East Berliners would say, yes, I have more choices in terms of where I could go for vacation, more choices of what I can eat, but I've lost access to the better quality asparagus because, apparently, better quality asparagus came from the east. And so they were questioning whether having more choice was really worth it, that they felt that at some level they had lost out on some of the more high-quality choices in the drive to have more choices.

VEDANTAM: One of the most telling examples of the mismatch between our perception of the importance of choices and the reality of those choices is a personal story that you tell about your own parents. Tell me that story, Sheena, and what you took away from it.

IYENGAR: When I was growing up, in this culture, you're always taught that, you know, you choose everything. I mean, you're always asked, what do you want? And, of course, you're the one who decides, you know, how you're going to look and what you're going to do with your life in terms of your career and obviously whom you're going to marry. And, you know, my parents met each other on their wedding night. It was really decided by my two grandmas. And when I was growing up and I would tell everybody, yeah, my parents met each other on their wedding night, I kid you not, it never failed. Every single friend of mine, every single friend's parent would always say, oh, my God, if that ever happened to me, I would die. And, you know, I certainly understood that that was the view, but my parents never really looked like they were ready to die. You know, they were just Mom and Dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Contrary to the theories of her friends, Sheena's parents were not miserable. It was yet another example of the strange conundrum. When you limited people's choices, they didn't always turn out worse. When we come back, what our choices say about who we are and why many of us crave more choices even when they make us unhappy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Psychologist Sheena Iyengar teaches at Columbia Business School. She has studied the choices we make, why our choices don't always produce the results we intend and how to make better choices. Sheena, one idea you explore has to do with a perception that we all have about ourselves, that we are unique. What does this perception have to do with our desire for choice and how we make choices?

IYENGAR: So we all have an innate desire to be someone, right? We don't want to just be a member of some massive crowd unrecognizable from everybody else. So we want to somehow stand out from everybody else. We don't want to become this lonely minority, but we do want to somehow be distinguishable from the person next to us. And how do we do that? We do that through the expression of identity. And more and more in the modern world, that expression of identity is coming through the choices that we make. The more choices we have, the more we believe that we can identify and pick a choice that is the perfect expression of who I am and what I want. And so that's really the link between my desire to uniquely be known as a type of person and how choices are used to establish my uniqueness.

VEDANTAM: What does the psychological research say about our perception of uniqueness? Is it actually true?

IYENGAR: Well, it's interesting that you ask that question. So let's say I give you a bunch of things, like names to call your children or sunglasses or shoes or ties for the case of men. And I ask you to just rate these on how unusual they are or how common they are. And I also ask you not only to rate on how unusual and common there, but I also ask you, how much do you like them? How much do you think other people would like them? And we did a series - we did this with a series of different kinds of decision-making scenarios. And what we found was that most people really believe that they like more unique things than everybody else. They also believe that they are more unique than everybody else.

But when you actually look at their preferences for what they like as compared to what other people said they like, essentially, we all like the same thing. We want that which is considered to be slightly unique, nothing too bland, nothing too bizarre. So, like, if you look at ties - right? - we don't want to pick the tie with the, you know, orange disco balls on it. That's a little too weird. We also don't want to pick just the solid color. That might be a little too boring. We want something with just a little bit of a kick to it.

VEDANTAM: So we believe that we are unique and we need choices to express that uniqueness. But we then sometimes, as you say, find ourselves in the awkward situation of making choices that are not very different from others, which then challenges our notions of being unique. You tell a funny story about waiting in line for hours at an Apple store to buy an iPhone for your partner, and he gave you very specific instructions on what he wanted. Tell me what happened next, Sheena.

IYENGAR: Oh, so this is my ex-husband, yes. For his birthday, it was just at the time when the Apple iPhone had just come out. And for his birthday, he wanted the original iPhone. So what happens was on that day - I don't know if you remember, but when the Apple iPhone first came out, there were these long lines that would go down many, many blocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Been here since 6 o'clock this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: It's 11 p.m.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: While Warrick Rivella (ph) spent the last 12 of hours waiting in line...

IYENGAR: So I had to get up at the middle of the night and go down to the Apple Store and stand in line to get him this phone that he really wanted for his birthday. And he had given me some very specific instructions that he needed the black iPhone, and he gave me all these specifications, blah, blah, blah, but he wanted the black one because he had said that, you know, it's less likely to get dirty and it looks sleek, et cetera.

Well, by the time I got to the front of the line, he caught up with me. He got out of bed, came to the Apple store - and this is the one on Fifth Avenue - got out of bed, he got to me, and he's like - just as I'm putting in the order for the black phone, he's like, no, no, no, switch that to the white. And I'm like, what do you mean you want the white? You told me you wanted the black and you told me all these reasons why you wanted the black. And I didn't really care about black or white. What did I care? And he's like, no, haven't you looked around? Everybody else has got the black one. I want the white one.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

IYENGAR: Now, mind you, we're only talking about black versus white. So as far as I was concerned, I really couldn't see the big deal here. Now - and he wasn't alone. There were lots of people who regularly make that decision as to which one's going to somehow make them stand out. Now, today, my understanding is he doesn't even carry any Apple phone in part because it would make him look too conformist. So he doesn't actually believe in Apple products (laughter). So, yes, we often do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: There are experiments along these lines of people sitting in a restaurant deciding what to order. Sometimes they get to be the first to make the order. Sometimes they have to wait for everyone around the table to order. Tell me what these experiments find and how satisfied people are with what they order depending on whether they go first or they go last.

IYENGAR: Well, my favorite study is a study that was done in a brewery where people are at a table - and these are just normal customers at a table - and they would ask people to order. And so the first person would order, the second person, third person, fourth person, fifth person. The orders of the first person were much more homogenous, meaning they were more likely to order similar things when you looked across the first orderers. But when you looked at the people who ordered at each table subsequent to the first person, now you saw greater heterogeneity, right? So the second, third, fourth, fifth person, they're all ordering something slightly different from the person who just ordered right before them. Interestingly enough, the person who is most satisfied with the beer that they ordered is the first person who ordered because they weren't paying any attention to what everybody else had already ordered.

VEDANTAM: Another issue with having choices is that it forces us to grapple with options that we have to forego. I'm wondering how this worry might affect the world of dating when we have so many people we can potentially choose from but making a choice involves forgoing other choices.

IYENGAR: Oh, it's a huge problem, right? It's what we call FOMO. Barry Schwartz and I first identified it in the domain of job search, right? That when people get more job opportunities, even though they actually do better in many objective senses - right? - they get higher salaries, they get better packages - they're less happy than the people that had fewer job offers. And the reason is not so much that they're convinced that they didn't pick the best of the bunch that they had. Most often they are convinced that they picked the best, but they are convinced that there might actually still be something better out there because they compare what they chose against some imaginary option. And the same thing is happening at a much larger level when it comes to dating - right? - because you have so many options and, you know, in many ways, these are incomparable options because you're comparing humans.

VEDANTAM: And, of course, it doesn't make a difference how long you go. There'll always be more options on the table. So this becomes a prescription then for indecision or a prescription for essentially dragging the decision out endlessly.

IYENGAR: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: So sometimes, the choices we make are trivial, but other times, they're also potentially heartbreaking. You describe in your book how researchers have looked at one of the worst tragedies to befall new parents and examine differences between countries like the United States and France. Can you tell me about those research studies and what they found, Sheena?

IYENGAR: Yeah. Those were some of the most heartbreaking studies I did. And yet so much of what we learned in those studies are so applicable to modern-day society. Essentially, we did a study with parents in France and parents in the United States who all had given birth to a child that was suffering from cerebral anoxia.

VEDANTAM: Cerebral anoxia is a type of injury where the brain is deprived of oxygen. As a result, Sheena says, these children were born with little or no brain function.

IYENGAR: In the case of France, the doctors would make the decision of taking these babies off of life support. And in the case of the United States, the doctors would tell the parents that, look, you know, the likelihood that this child will ever walk or talk or engage in any kind of normal life is close to zero. And so you can either take it off life support or it'll probably die anyway. And the American parents would have to sign the consent form in order for that final decision to be made. And so we compared those cases where the decision was made in both cases for the child to be removed off of life support. And in general, in this kind of decision-making, it's very rare for a child not to be taken off of life support. And so when they are taken off of life support, they typically die within hours.

Now, what we did was we followed these parents over the course of the next year, and what we found was that the parents in the United States had a much harder time coping with the death of their child as compared to the ones in France. So the parents in France were much more likely to say things like, you know, Noah (ph) was here for so little time, but in that time, he gave us so much. Now, by contrast, the American parents were still suffering even a year later, and they said things that were really heartbreaking, like, you know, I keep wondering what if, what if, what if. Or they said things like, I can't believe they got me to do that. So it was almost like they were still struggling with the guilt and wanting to put the responsibility somewhere because they were struggling with the fact that, essentially, they felt they had killed their child.

VEDANTAM: So did the American parents wish that they had not been given that choice in that situation?

IYENGAR: Well, the paradox in that study was that even though having made the choice had made these Americans so miserable, when they were asked, would you have rather have had the doctors make the choice for you, they all said no. And I think this comes back to the fact that in this culture, choice has a really special, elevated place in our lives because for these American parents, to say no to choice would have made them question everything that they had come to believe was important to them and what it meant to be a human being.

VEDANTAM: So even when we know that our choices can lead to great unhappiness, we cannot help wanting to have those choices anyway.

IYENGAR: We still believe we should be the one to make the choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Questions of choice and autonomy are raging around us today in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people chafe at being told to stay home and see it as a curtailment of their personal autonomy. I asked Sheena how questions of choice are shaping our response to the pandemic.

IYENGAR: Well, I think that one of the lens through which we see choice around the globe has to do with to what extent we value the notion of individualism versus collectivism. And so, you know, when you go to places like China, having a decision dictated to you in the interests of the collective feels more natural. In the case of the United States, having a choice dictated to you in the interests of the collective feels a bit foreign because this is a culture that above all else values individual rights. That is the collective stand. And now we're asking people to do something that's kind of antithetical to that, which is put aside your own individual interests for the sake of the collective.

VEDANTAM: Whether you're living in a culture that prizes the collective or prioritizes the individual, there are ways to make better decisions. When we come back - how to make wiser choices.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Sheena Iyengar studies how we make choices and how we can make better choices. One of her earlier studies involves students at an elementary school in San Francisco.

IYENGAR: One of my first studies on choice looked at the differences between Asian and Anglo-American children. And, essentially, we took a very traditional paradigm in psychology where in one condition children are given a choice - which one of these six activities do you want to do? And in the other condition, the children are told which one of these six activities to do. We then added a third condition where the children were shown the choices but were told that their mothers had made the choice for them as to which of the six activities they would do. And these are 7-year-old kids.

And what we found was that with Anglo-American children, we got exactly what prior research had expected us to find. Anglo-American children were more motivated to do the activity and performed better on the activity when they made a choice. And it didn't matter whether it was an experimenter who made the choice for them or their mothers. If anything, they were more angry when they were told that their mothers had made the selection for them. And so Anglo-American children were more likely to say things like, you asked my mother? I can't believe you asked my mother. By contrast, the - and I can relate now as a mother of a teenager. I mean, I think he would kill somebody if they said that Mom had the right to make a choice for him.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

IYENGAR: Now, by contrast, the Asian American children, they actually performed the best for mother when they thought Mom had made the choice; second best when they got to choose for themselves and, you know, just as badly as the Anglo-American children when the choice was made for them by this experimenter whom they had never met before. What we observed there was that for the Asian American children, you know, for them, having Mom make the choice was not this awful thing. If anything, they wanted Mom to be told that they had done it exactly the way she had said because, for them, it wasn't this moment of someone taking away their empowerment. If anything, they felt more empowered by having Mother make the choice because now they felt more confident that they were making the right choice.

VEDANTAM: So some of this has to do with our notions of how much we think of ourselves as individuals, how much we see ourselves as part of a collective. It's not necessarily that, you know, Asian and Anglo children are biologically different from one another. But the experiment that you're citing really reveals that we have in some ways different frames. So autonomy means something different for the Anglo kids than it did for the Asian kids. What was it?

IYENGAR: Well, I think in American culture, we have a very deep assumption, which goes like this - if a choice affects me, I should be the one to make it. By God, I'm the one who should make that choice if it's going to affect me. How could you possibly think otherwise? And in the Asian culture, they have an equally valid assumption, which says if a choice affects me and is important, then, by God, somebody really important to me is going to tell me or assist me or guide me on how to make that choice. How could you do it any other way? And that's an example of how a choice should be made, what constitutes a good or bad choice-making method. These are cultural constructs.

VEDANTAM: So the takeaway here is not only do cultures differ in how many choices people get, they also differ in how desirable they think it is to have choices. Some cultures see less choice as the route to happiness and strive to limit choices and other cultures see more choice as the path to happiness. You encountered this in your own life when you were working in Japan. And at a restaurant one day, you asked for a cup of tea. Can you tell me what happened next?

IYENGAR: So I was in Japan. This was in 1995. I was a Ph.D. student and I was in Kyoto. And I - you know, as an Indian, I grew up with tea that had sugar. Of course, you put sugar in your tea. And so I go to this Japanese restaurant, and I order green tea and I say, can I please have some sugar? And the waiter says, oh, no, no, you don't put sugar in tea. And I said, yeah, I understand in Japan you don't put sugar in your tea, but can I please have some sugar with my tea? And in Japanese style, this leads to this big discussion and now multiple people are coming to me verifying I want sugar. Ultimately, the manager comes to me and says, I'm sorry, we don't have sugar. And so then I'm like, well, I don't want green tea if I can't have sugar. So I order a cup of coffee, and they bring me a cup of coffee, and with the cup of coffee, they brought me two packets of sugar. And it wasn't that they were trying to be obtuse or rude. They were just trying to protect me from, you know, making a fool of myself. I mean, you can't put sugar in green tea. It's just not done. They were just trying to protect me from my baser instincts.

VEDANTAM: One thing I take away from the story is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all rule for everybody when it comes to choice. So in other words, an arranged marriage might work for one couple, but it might be a disastrous idea for another.

IYENGAR: The love the marriage and the arranged marriage, as tempting as it is to want to compare them, they're just very different models, right? An arranged marriage assumes that marriage is conceived in fate kind of like a parent and a child, right? It's conceived in fate. This is not something you break. And so when you're stuck with somebody, you just bring a different mindset to it, right? You know you have to work it out and adapt. A love marriage is conceived in choice. And so you're going to treat it differently, you know, because you have different expectations from it. So I think that's one thing to pay attention to, that, you know, they are conceived of in different ways and so they're going to bring different expectations for the two sets of participants.

I think the second thing to keep in mind is that they are matching people based on different criteria. In an arranged marriage, they are going to take care of the stuff that could cause problems pretty upfront, right? They're usually people of the same religion, the same caste, parents know each other, generally speaking, they're similar demographics, economics, et cetera. And so by and large, you do have people that are a bit more similar coming together. So at least you get a bunch of those things out of the way that they're probably not going to fight about.

And, remember, they don't have this goal necessarily of feeling of, well, a good marriage is one where I have to want to, you know, take this person's clothes off every day. That's just not their vision of what the ideal marriage is, right? Whereas in the love marriage, it's - you know, it's about being compatible in terms of, oh, my God, I have this special feeling every time I see this person. And I just - you know, at the very least, I want to tear off their clothes. And on top of that, we have some amazing conversations and we get along and we share in values. They're just going to judge them by very different criteria.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Sheena has come up with a number of strategies to help people make better choices. One insight came from a study she conducted where people were given the option to customize the cars they were buying.

IYENGAR: Let's imagine you are custom making your car. And you have to make roughly 60 decisions, right? - the rearview mirror, the steering wheel, the roof, the interior decor, the exterior car color, yada, yada, yada. Now, per decision, you have a variable number of choices, right? So for engine, you might have two; for exterior car color, you might have 56 different colors. So it turns out that if I organize your choosing experience so that you go from easy choices, meaning you're choosing two engines and then, you know, 10 different types of, say, steering wheels and then 21 different types of interior decor - and so it's getting gradually more complex until you get to the 56 different car colors versus you go from high-choice scenarios - 56 car colors - and then it's gradually getting less and less and less, such that the last choice you make, you're choosing two engines.

It turns out if you go from a low choice to high choice, you remain motivated and interested in that car. How do we know that? Well, per decision, if you don't know what to choose, you hit the default button. And it turns out that when people go from low choice to high choice, they continue to choose. When they go from high choice to low choice, they start off with enthusiasm. But somewhere in the middle of the choosing process, they just start hitting the default button over and over and over again. They're also less satisfied with the car that they have just put over 30,000 Euros to buy if they go from high choice to low choice - much more satisfied when they go from low to high choice.

Now what are the ramifications of that? It means that this'll - you know, we like customization. That's the whole point of modern living, right? You can have personalization, which enables us to be unique and have it exactly the way we want. And apps, et cetera, make it a lot easier for us to do that. But it also means that you have to make that choosing experience curated in a way that's actually intrinsically motivating, right? You can't just throw me into the deep end. You know, take me in little by little by little. So start me off with an easy choice and gradually make it harder and harder. I need to be - you need to start me off so that I know what I'm choosing. I'm starting to imagine what I'm putting together. The more excited I get, the more I'm able to imagine this thing I'm creating, the more I'm going to be able to put in the mental energy that it takes to deal with those increasingly more complex choices that you're going to give me.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if there is an element of this that's also about the forest and the trees. You've also, I think, talked about this idea that it's important to choose sort of bigger categories rather than start out with smaller categories. So maybe, you want to decide - do I want a hybrid or do I not want a hybrid? - before you get bogged down in sort of the differences between the specifics to make the higher-level choices first. Do you think the two ideas are connected - do the forest before the trees?

IYENGAR: Oh, absolutely. I mean, when you're going to give people tons of choices, hands down, those websites which will have a real competitive advantage is the way they organize the choices, making the categories - you have to make the categories meaningful, not cutesy. You have to make the categories, one, where I clearly know without much thought, oh, that one is more applicable to me, and that one is not.

The more people can feel confident about saying no to the stuff they don't want and, yes, I am interested in something more in that category, and I can start whittling it down, happier I am in the choosing experience. By the way, I think to the extent that anybody can do that with the dating apps...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

IYENGAR: ...The better off people will also be because, literally, this swiping right and left - it's not actually helping. Even though it might feel good to keep swiping, it's not actually good for the experience of feeling confident or competent during that choosing process.

VEDANTAM: One of the things you've talked about - and I understand you're writing a new book about the subject - is that choice gives us the ability to imagine futures that we might not have been able to imagine otherwise. Can you talk about this utility that choice gives us and how it's connected to the new book you're working on?

IYENGAR: So I really think that the real power of choice does not come from the ability to pick and find. I mean, obviously, we spend our lives picking and finding from morning until night. But I think the real power of choice, what really distinguishes us from everything, whether it be other animals, whether it be AI and machine learning, is our ability to imagine and turn what we imagine into a real choice. So one of my favorite quotes is a quote by the French polymath Henri Poincare who said that, "invention consists of avoiding the constructing of useless combinations and consist of the constructing of useful combinations, which are an infinite minority - to invent is to discern is to choose."

And so I often tell my students a corollary and my corollary is that to choose is to invent, that we can use choice to construct those most meaningful combinations. And that's when we really experience the power of choice, that choice is not about being reactive to whatever is in front of you. It's being able to be proactive about creating those choices that enable you to go from who you are today to whom you want to be tomorrow. And so that's my link to imagination.

VEDANTAM: So in many ways, this leads me to a personal question I wanted to ask you, Sheena. As a child, you had dreamed of becoming a pilot. I want you to tell me why that childhood dream did not pan out and what that disappointment taught you about the world of choices and what you were just talking about a second earlier, the world of constructing your own choices.

IYENGAR: So when I was a kid, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. And so I had a rare form of it. And so my parents were told that I would go blind sometime during my school years. And, you know, as often happens when parents are confronted by this, they don't really know what to do. They don't know what options they - we might have.

And in many cases, they were kind of hoping it would go away. And it was kept a secret. And I remember the first time when I was in school, I was in second grade. And our teacher had just finished telling us that we could grow up and do and be whatever it is we wanted to be as long as we put our hearts and minds to it. And so she asked us what did we want to be when we grew up? And I raised my hand. I was about, like, 8 years old at the time. And I said I was going to be a pilot. And everybody snickered. And - because, you know, the teacher knew that I had some visual challenges, and the kids knew. And that was actually probably the first time when I really began to understand that you can't just put your heart and mind to it. There are constraints. You are going to have to figure out what choices are available to you. And I think that's true for all of us, right?

We're all trying to figure out what our limitations are. And part of that has to do with being able to differentiate between our perceived and true limitations. And that was certainly one of my big struggles growing up was figuring that - because there were lots of people that had lots of views about what a blind person could and could not do and what choices they had and didn't have. And so I had to look at that information. And I had to look at the information of, well, what could I do and not do? Isn't it possible that there are other choices available that go beyond this choice that other people are telling me about.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: You write in your book that to choose means to turn ourselves to the future to try to catch a glimpse of the next hour, the next year. Right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us can't see what's ahead. We don't know when a vaccine is going to come, what's going to happen to the economy. Many of us are experiencing a deep loss of control. I'm wondering what your own experience with blindness may have taught you about having control, not having control and making choices that would produce happiness in the future.

IYENGAR: So I would say that there are three things that I keep as sort of mottos in my life. One is you always have to be choosy about choosing, and that is that there's so many things coming at you, you have to somehow remind yourself what are the three most important things right now? And I try to keep it to no more than five and really prefer three because my brain can't handle more than that.

And by the way, everything I'm saying are certainly things that I try to practice right now during the crisis. The second thing is each day, I ask myself what is the bare minimum that I absolutely have to accomplish today that's really important to accomplish today? Everything else I get done is icing. And, you know, that makes life a lot easier because then you understand, OK, you know, what's the bare minimum? Like, make sure 14-year-old son stays alive. That's bare minimum.

(LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: Low bar, Sheena, low bar.

IYENGAR: Yeah, low bar, right? Just keeping him alive, right? So therefore, everything that happens above that is icing. It gives you a greater recognition of what you really have in your control and what things you really don't have as much control over. And so you're better able to let go of the stuff you don't have as much control over. The third thing that I keep in mind is that, you know, in life, we have lots of dreams. And one of the great things about being a human being is that we're endlessly dreaming.

And we always have great dreams. And most of those dreams, we have to take off the table. They're gone. They're just not possible. And that's really sad. But the reality is that as humans, dreams come in an endless supply pack. And so you can focus on the dreams that you can make and you can take advantage of. And that's really where the power of choice comes from.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Psychologist Sheena Iyengar works at Columbia University. Sheena, thanks for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

IYENGAR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Lushik Wahba and Parth Shah. It was edited by Tara Boyle and Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel and Cat Schuknecht, production support from Gilly Moon. HIDDEN BRAIN has a request for you. We'd like to better understand who's listening and how you're using podcasts. Please help us out by completing a short anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey. It takes less than 10 minutes and really helps support the show. That's npr.org/podcastsurvey.

Our unsung hero this week is Kate Turner (ph). Kate works as an assistant to Sheena Iyengar. And she was essential to making our interview possible. Before the interview, Kate took time to test out an app to record the conversation and then made sure we were getting the best sound quality possible. She deleted many megabytes of files from her phone to clear space for the interview recordings. Thank you for your diligence and your patience, Kate.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter. If you liked today's show, please share it with a friend. I know I ask you to do this every week, but I really mean it. If you liked today's episode, please think of someone who doesn't know about HIDDEN BRAIN and share it with them. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.