Book review: The Art of Choosing

by Ahalya on September 17, 2010

As it appeared in Business World online

Choice Analytics

Understanding how neurological elements and cultural conditioning influence our ability to choose and the dilemmas thus faced

Ahalya Naidu

Art-of-ChoosingWe have no choice but to make several choices through the course of our life, from the routine to the crucial. And we have to bear the responsibility of these choices. But, it isn’t easy to choose when faced with a bewildering array of options that are indistinguishable from each other; or when the choice is between options none of which are right, or are downright dangerous.

“The ability to choose well is arguably the most powerful tool for controlling our environment,” Sheena Iyengar points out in her authoritative book, The Art of Choosing. Iyengar is a professor at the Columbia University and one of the world’s leading experts on choice. Her work is regularly cited in influential publications as well as in bestselling books such as Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

It is the results of several cleverly-designed experiments that she has conducted over the years that we read in the book. Her efforts show us how cultural backgrounds, demographics, geography, political environments, placement of information, our feelings, and even attractiveness influence the decisions we make that will affect us and will therefore also affect our freedom, our careers, the political environment, and make the difference between life and death.

Iyengar explains that the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command centre that determines and executes the best overall course of action, is more developed in humans, giving us an unparalleled ability to choose rationally, superseding competing instincts, and that this facility improves with age. And yet, we are not satisfied with our own choices sometimes. The book decodes difficult dilemmas: why are we attracted to what is forbidden; how does intuition work; why does the removal of choice unsettle us, even if it is for our own good; why do we make bad choices even when we have lots of options to choose from; why do we sometimes prefer not having a choice; why do we act against our better judgment and give into cravings; why do we have a natural aversion to ceding any control to others; and why do some of us have immense faith in astrologers and our parents? Her clear and engaging style and the insights her work gives us about ourselves make this book an important and easy read.

The book delves into the art and science of choice and relies on the expertise of political scientists, sociologists, economists, and experts from the fashion, music, medical, and finance industries. Her studies encompass a whole range of issues that people can expect to face over a lifetime. After all, “…choice is inextricably linked to the ‘unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’”.

She tells us why we require a structured approach to choosing, and must realise the benefits of recommendations, categorisation, re-education and relinquishing our choices to others. For only by learning how and why we make certain choices can we discover who we really are.

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