The world famous expert on choice and decisions, Sheena Iyengar, wrote her book titled, “The Art of Choosing” to explain years of her cumulative research on human decision making. What makes her book so interesting (and a global book chart dominator) is that she combines psychology, politics, technology, business, and culture to understand what influences choice, how external factors affect us and what we can do better.
External factors and choice
Learning how to make choices is more important today than ever. We live in a noisy world, where choices are in abundance – being self-aware around our decision making cuts the complexity (and bias) out of our choices. Iyengar became one of the world’s most prominent researchers in this field following her famous jam study, whereby shoppers could sample 6 or 24 different varieties of jam at a supermarket. The study found six times more purchases when fewer jams were available.
How to be more self-aware around decision making
1. Understand your culture and how much choice you need
Cultures that focus and protect individual freedoms and rights, for example, Europe, and the U.S produce people who want autonomy and independence. Eastern cultures are typically more focused on community and feel more at ease with collective decisions being made on their behalf.
In a study where Asian-American and Anglo-American children were either given a toy to play with by their mothers or allowed to select a toy to play with themselves, the Asian kids played longer when their parents chose their toy, whereas the American kids played longer if they self-selected.
This kind of environmental bias can determine our overall happiness and career satisfaction. Be mindful of how much choice you need in your life and try to negotiate a career that can give you what you need.
2. A lack of choice, if left unresolved, can impact your health
Typically those in higher paid roles, with higher responsibility have better mental health. Studies show this isn’t due to more money but due to the increased freedom to structure work and tasks experienced by those in higher responsibility roles.
Feeling like you have a choice is so important that even the perception of choice matters a great deal. For example, when new residents of a nursing home were given a schedule of activities, along with instructions stating they were “allowed” to visit other floors, they felt like their health was the staff’s responsibility, and they gave up on it. Telling a second group that everything was their choice made them much happier, even though technically both groups were free to do as they pleased. This is something to remember if you lead a group of employees, choice is key to employee morale, innovation and productivity.
3. Sometimes delegating our freedom of choice is better for us, but only if we’re properly informed
Sometimes in life, we have to make really, really hard choices. This can range from life or death situations for example, deciding to keep a loved one on life support or big business choices for example, deciding how many employees you have to make redundant. In these situations, it’s often better for your mental health to delegate to an expert however, it only makes you feel better if you’re well informed about the entire decision making process.
In a study where participants read about the following three scenarios, the group that didn’t have to make the decision but was well-informed felt best about it:
- The parents aren’t informed about their child’s survival chances, the doctors stop the treatment and the child dies.
- The parents are told there’s a 60% survival chance, but with severe neurological disabilities, before the doctors stop the treatment and the child dies.
- The parents are told the chances and have to decide themselves.
Groups 1 and 3 felt equally as bad, for being robbed of choice and for having to deal with the circumstances, while group 2 felt glad to know what was going on and that the choice was inevitable.
Choices are everywhere and we make them multiple times a day. Our objective should be to increase self-awareness around the most important areas of our life. Why am I making this choice? Is there any external factors that may make this choice less objective? Small, probing questions can increase self-awareness around your external biases and allow you to make decisions that best serve your long term goals.